SIOUX CITY -- Maneuvering in an electric wheelchair through the maze-like lower level of the Council on Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence (CSADV), Erica Carter is assisted by the ever-present Max, a 10-year-old Labradoodle.
"I usually don't give away Max's age," Carter said as her support dog takes a seat on the floor. "No matter how old Max gets, he'll always seem like a puppy to me."
The fiscal manager at CSADV since 2015, Carter is also an adjunct instructor at Western Iowa Tech Community College (WITCC), where she graduated from the school's accounting specialist program in 2013.
Indeed, she was named WITCC's Alumnus of the Year in December 2018.
Paralyzed from the neck down due to a skiing accident, Carter has become an advocate for both nonprofit organizations as well as people with disabilities.
"I would never allow being a quadriplegic to keep me from living my dreams," the 33-year-old Hinton native explained. "In fact, it has given purpose to my life."
Formerly a ski instructor and tour guide, Carter was likely walking around with a broken neck for an entire year without even knowing it. Then, she took a small fall at home, which triggered a spinal cord injury.
Carter hit the floor, paralyzed.
"My doctor said it was the cleanest spinal cord break he had ever see," she said, still wincing at the memory nearly 10 years later. "Guess that was a silver lining if you wanted it to be."
Carter was scared.
"Every job that I had before relied on being physical," she explained. "I didn't know what I could do."
After graduating from WITCC, Carter earned a Bachelor's degree in accounting from Briar Cliff University in addition to attaining a nonprofit management graduate certificate from the University of South Dakota and a Master's degree in strategic management and human resource management from Briar Cliff.
Working her way through school, Carter started out as a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program coordinator at Center for Siouxland before beginning at CSADV.
"When I applied for the job, nobody at CSADV saw me as a girl in a wheelchair," she said. "They just saw someone with ability and a passion for nonprofit organizations."
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Carter knows, first-hand, how important nonprofits are.
She recalled the time spent in rehab at the renowned Craig Hospital, in Englewood, Colo., which specializes in spinal cord injuries.
"I had so many questions at the time." Carter said. "Will I ever be able to drive again? Will I be able to live on my own? Will I ever work again?"
More immediate in her mind was how expensive a lifelong injury would be.
"What do you do when an electric wheelchair costs $13,000 and your insurance will only play for $5,000?" Carter asked.
Luckily, Craig Hospital, a nonprofit hospital, was able to address many of her anxieties.
This to day, Carter continues to do programs at hospitals, where she educates occupational and physical therapists, giving insight from the perspective of a patient.
"I guarantee that every question their patients have, I had my own," she said.
That empathy has also impacted Carter's work for CSADV.
"There no way around it," she said. "Domestic violence is ugly. Organizations like CSADV makes the situation less ugly."
As Max sits quietly near by, Carter reflects for a moment.
"My dad probably gave me the best advice when it came to life," she said. "Even though my dad eventually got his GED, he had to leave school after the eighth grade."
Despite that, Carter's dad never stopped learning or striving for more.
"I can never stop learning and you can never stop fighting," she said. "My accident didn't ruin my life. It gave me a platform to help others."