Athlete and advocate Mark Braun works to make a difference, one person at a time. His own difficult start in life has resulted in a giving spirit and a desire to help others.
As a teen, Braun set the pace for Minnesota high school wheelchair athletes. He is an advocate for people with disabilities, with a focus on helping children succeed in life. He is a tireless promoter of physical fitness and wheelchair sports. His outgoing and magnetic personality draws in people of all ages and gets them involved in whatever he is doing.
This remarkable young man is the 2017 Access Press Charlie Smith Award winner. He’ll be honored at the newspaper’s annual banquet November 3 in Bloomington.
“Getting the award means a lot to me,” said Braun, 23, of Mounds View. “It is a validation of the work I am doing and hope to continue to do.”
Braun has many athletic titles to his credit and is now eyeing the 2020 Summer Paralympics in Tokyo and the 2019 Parapan American Games in Lima, Peru. When he is not training for competitions, Braun works part-time in youth development at the Emma B. Howe YMCA in Coon Rapids. He is a motivational speaker and is launching his own foundation.
“We had many good nominees for the Charlie Smith Award, which made selecting the winner a challenge,” said Steve Anderson, chairman of the Access Press Board of Directors. “Mark Braun has been recognized in the past for his athletic abilities, which are numerous. However, Access Press is recognizing Mark for his impact in the disability community, especially working with individuals with newly acquired disabilities, showing them that life does not end because of a disability, it only changes.”
“Mark Braun is an amazing young man who has overcome the odds not only to succeed but to help others,” said Access Press Executive Director Tim Benjamin. “We are proud to honor him as this year’s Charlie Smith Award winner.”
The late Smith founded Access Press almost 30 years ago. “Charlie Smith loved children and reached out to all children with or without disabilities,” Benjamin said. “So it is very fitting that this year’s honoree continues that legacy of reaching out and encouraging children to do and be their best selves.”
Braun’s life story is remarkable. Born in Jamaica with spina bifida, he was abandoned in a trash can as an infant. A police officer heard him crying and he was taken to an orphanage. Conditions there were bleak as children shared scant food supplies and lived in crowded quarters. Until Braun was five years old, he had to crawl around the orphanage, pulling his legs behind him.
Claire Braun was on a mission trip in 1997 when she met the child who would become one of her family’s 11 children. “There was just something about Mark, even when he was small,” she said. On a return trip to the orphanage, she and other volunteers fitted the children with wheelchairs. The little boy was so excited, he cut in line. When Claire Braun held him in her lap so that he would wait his turn, he began to sing. Then and there she made the decision to adopt him.
Claire and Warren Braun are longtime foster parents for Ramsey County, caring for 75 children over four decades. Mark Braun would become part of a family that includes eight children with complex medical conditions. He parted with his wheelchair in exchange for a teddy bear and a promise of a new chair when he arrived in the United States.
Braun began in the adaptive sports program at Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute, where he has enjoyed basketball, softball, track and Nordic skiing. Today he is one of the fastest wheelchair sprinters in the United States. He played on four national championship Junior Rolling Timberwolves teams. “I enjoy sports of all kinds,” he said.
Braun uses his powerful arms and abdominal muscles to utilize his three-wheeled sports wheelchairs and other mobility devices. His mother recalled how quickly he mastered the use of a wheelchair, zipping around their home as a little boy should.
He was among the first wheelchair athletes to compete in track and field events at the Minnesota State High School League, in 2011, wearing the colors of Irondale High School. He also finds time to help his mother coach the Rolling Thunder basketball team for younger children.
Although Braun loves sports, another great love is that of helping others. He has traveled the globe advocating for people with disabilities. On one trip to Jamaica, he convinced the nation’s prime minister to release several children with disabilities for adoption. He used his Make-A-Wish opportunity to provide gifts for children with disabilities. He visits children in hospitals to encourage them and share with them the world of adaptive sports.
“He’s an amazing young man,” Claire Braun said. “He has such a giving spirit.”
He speaks to groups and recently appeared at the Minnesota State Council on Disability Booth at the Minnesota State Fair. He also filmed a video at the fairgrounds, about the challenges of getting around. Braun said it’s important to point out access problems and to get those resolved.
Visitors to the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul can “see” Braun in the new interactive sportsology exhibit.
“These kinds of opportunities allow me to raise awareness of different issues, ranging from sports and fitness to accessibility,” he said.
Braun especially wants to get children and elders engaged and involved. “I like to talk to people about overcoming whatever challenges they face,” he said. “That’s really important to me. I like to get people moving so they can see what they can do.”
Banquet tickets are $50 per person or $350 for a table of eight. Access Press is still seeking banquet sponsors as well as donations for the silent auction and “pick a prize” raffle. Call Access Press Office Manager, Dawn, with questions about the banquet, tickets, sponsorships and the silent auction and raffle prizes, at 651-644-2133 or email [email protected]