By Mike Taibbi, NBC News correspondent
I heard about Harry Horgan from a mutual friend, Richard Fucci, a pilot who's paralyzed and who for years has passed along his love of flight to others who are physically challenged. Fooch in turn had shared the helm of a sailboat with Harry during a race series in Newport, Rhode Island. They'd won – the two of them just a touch competitive – but where they really were a match was in their equivalent belief that with the right motivation, and just enough mechanical ingenuity about the craft of choice, a so-called handicapped person could pursue his or her passions as fervently as anyone else. For both Fooch and Harry, if they could do it, they could teach it.
Harry was paralyzed in a car accident just after graduating college, and when he struggled in rehab and would mope and feel sorry for himself his folks would get on him: 'Hey Harry, snap out of it, shake a leg…there's plenty to do!" Hence, Shake-A-Leg, his amazing non-profit on Miami's Biscayne Bay. Every summer he draws hundreds of kids – kids who are economically, physically or developmentally challenged – and gives them a shot at the healing and life-affirming power of water, specifically, salt water. In modified kayaks and sailboats, he and his staff, and a small army of volunteers, provide an environment of stunning possibilities and inviting independence. Wheelchair-bound kids who can hold fast to a kayak pontoon and, helped by the buoyancy of salt water, "stand" on their own two feet: children who struggle with the most basic of life's daily tasks, taking a real sailboat through tack after tack, riding the wind and current and getting from here to there on their own.
I liked this story from the beginning partly because I've sailed for 30 years and have always relied on the water to keep me humble and in spiritual balance, but mostly because Harry convinced me in just a few short conversations that his extraordinary accomplishment was never about him, not from the beginning. It was always about recapturing the feeling of liberation and rapture that sailing and boating gave him – after his accident – and about providing that feeling for anyone who came to his slice of shoreline on Biscayne Bay. Not just kids, but also, this year, wounded Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. It helps that the city of Miami recognized a good thing once Harry set up shop some years ago, and helped provide him with shed and office and dock facilities. It helps that even in this crummy economy and without the typical fund-raising events common to most non-profits, there are enough donors fueled by word-of-mouth enthusiasm to keep Shake-A-Leg afloat.
As for me, I got to sail with a 14-year-old kid named Miguel. He was born premature at just over a pound with cerebral palsy. He wasn't supposed to live, his mom was told. But did he ever prove the experts wrong. With help from Harry (what a role model that man is) Miguel has developed in ways his own mother could not have imagined, aiming for a career as a sportscaster that's surely within reach. As he and I maneuvered our sloop up the contrary current and wind, I noticed after a while that I didn't have to explain what we had to do: he knew, his hand on the tiller an experienced hand. He asked me what I liked best about sailing and when I told him it was the times I had the freedom to cruise, to bounce from one harbor to another and just drop anchor until I decided to visit some other anchorage; he said that sounded great. "You think you might want to try that, some day?" I asked him. "I don't think so," he said almost sternly, his hand firmly on the tiller. "I know so! I know so!"
Wouldn't doubt him for a minute.
For more information about Shake-A-Leg Miami, visit the Web site at www.shakealegmiami.org or call 305-858-5550.