Alex Watters is unstoppable.
Just two weeks after he left his inpatient spinal cord injury rehabilitation stay at Craig Hospital in 2004, Alex reenrolled in college. He was on a path that he refused to abandon, despite a diving accident that took the use of his arms and legs early in his freshman year and despite the fact that this path was drastically different than what he had originally envisioned.
Pausing wasn’t an option for Alex. He earned his undergraduate degree in political science at Morningside University and immediately went on to earn a master’s degree from Creighton University. Today, he’s actively making the world a better place and inspiring people along the way.
“I hope to leave people a little more uplifted,” says Alex. “We all possess the ability to improve our lives and the lives of others.”
Alex was at Craig for six months. He had to spend a lot of time on bedrest due to pressure ulcers and skin flap surgeries, but he still made good progress. The positive culture at Craig meshed with his inner drive to look on the bright side and overcome challenges. That culture – and the relationships he made – is what Alex treasures most about his time at Craig.
“We had a lot of fun as patients together. I got really close to my roommate, and I enjoyed joking with everyone and even pranking the staff,” he says. “It was an emotionally taxing time, so to offer levity with laughter was critical.”
Alex stays in touch with staff at Craig, all of whom he considers family. He says that part of the reason he pays it forward through his work and volunteer activities is because of Craig and the inspiration he found among his technicians, nurses, doctors, counselors, therapists and aides. Alex returns each year to Craig for an Interdisciplinary Outpatient Evaluation (IOE) designed for people with spinal cord injuries.
“A group of us who graduated from Craig around 2004 come back at the same time each year and have a reunion. They call us 'The Boys of Summer,'” Alex says. “Those friendships are like no other. We learn from each other and inspire one another to improve our lives.”
It’s impossible to talk with Alex without being affected. He’s bursting with positive energy and motivation. And he’s using that motivation to improve his own community in Sioux City, Iowa, where he was elected as a city council member in 2017. Alex helps prompt positive change, including building affordable housing, expanding the park system and promoting the city’s tourism opportunities.
Alex works at his alma mater, Morningside University. He’s been there for eight years and now serves as the Director of Talent and Community Engagement.
“I love my job. It melds my work on city council with my work with students and helping them explore professions through job shadowing in the community,” Alex says.
He also shakes up attitudes at the national level. His first job after graduate school was working on President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. That connection led him to work with Kamala Harris during her recent presidential campaign in Iowa. He introduced her at an event in Sioux City and helped shape her disability policy, specifically on how people with disabilities can vote safely. A video of this disability policy rollout can still be seen on her Instagram account. He also shared ideas with then-presidential candidate Joe Biden.
“The Obama campaign opened my eyes early on to the difference politics can make and how policy impacts people’s lives. I realized if I could do this nationally, I could also do it locally to lift up my own community,” he says.
Something that has sprung up organically for Alex is participating in speaking engagements. Thanks to his upbeat nature and his public recognition, he gives about a dozen talks each year to various groups. Motivational speaking was a natural fit since Alex believes everyone has the ability to make life better for themselves and those around them.
“I try to challenge people to find their value and act on it,” Alex says. “An accident can shine a spotlight on your personality and lead to great understanding about who you are and what you are worth.”
When not advocating for change, Alex cherishes his time with his fiancé, Casey. The two met on social media over their love of food posts. Casey is a registered dietician.
“She asked me, ‘Are you just into food or do you actually like me, too?’ I wrote back, ‘Both.’ We met and quickly fell in love,” he says.
It’s no surprise that the two are self-proclaimed foodies who enjoy visiting breweries and wineries and cooking together. Alex recently started an Instagram account for food lovers.
His advice to those living with a spinal cord injury?
“Don’t discount your abilities and remember—things take time. Give yourself patience and grace, because there will be tough days,” he says. “But I also believe it’s easy to get comfortable. You have to keep pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.”
Recently, Alex pushed himself to start driving on his own. He was nervous to try, but he finally learned to drive adaptively more than 10 years after his accident. Today, he’s thrilled to drive to visit friends, see the countryside and attend weekend fundraisers.
“That’s why you have a wheelchair, to roll right over those obstacles. It doesn’t hold us back; it propels us forward!” he exclaims.