Incight Profile: Board Member Jerry Carleton

When they were undergraduates at the University of Portland, Vail Horton, Scott Hatley, and Jerry Carleton were inseparable. Scott, who uses a motorized wheelchair, and Jerry, who is able-bodied, used to do a Titanic routine, flying around campus with Jerry perched on the back of Scott’s wheelchair, arms outstretched, crowing “I’m the king of the world!” One day Vail, who was born without legs and used crutches to get around, was told by his doctor that the crutches were damaging his shoulders and that he should begin using a wheelchair. Vail decided he could come up with a better solution. With Scott and Jerry’s help, Vail worked up a prototype for crutches with built-in shock absorbers, a product that would eventually drive the launch of Vail’s company Keen Healthcare, a company that has now been on the Inc. 5000 list of the nation’s fastest growing companies for 9 years in a row.

While they were still developing the crutch, Vail and Jerry went to a trade show in California to learn the sales channels. They started chatting up kids who walked by, asking them what they wanted to be. “Able-bodied kids had great answers,” Jerry says. “An astronaut, an ice cream man, a firefighter. But when we asked that question to kids with disabilities, we got this deer-in-the-headlight look — they just shut down. No one had asked them that before, which was really troubling. There’s nothing that creates daily excitement for these kids, nothing that they were living for. Vail said on the spot, ‘that’s handicrap,’ and we decided then and there that we needed to start a nonprofit for kids with disabilities so that they know what their options are.”

After some deliberation, Jerry, Vail, and Scott settled on the name Incight – a portmanteau word combining “insight” and “incite.” Soon, the 501(c)3 was formed; Scott was Incight’s first staff member; and Incight began its work to break down stereotypes and open doors for disabled and able-bodied people of all ages.

Jerry was a board member from Incight’s inception and was always a dedicated volunteer for the organization. But, he says, it took awhile for his commitment to Incight to mature. “From day one, I was involved out of love for Vail and Scott: the cause wasn’t one I was passionate about,” Jerry says. “In 2011, I was thinking about transitioning off the board, figuring I’d given about as much as I could to it personally. Meanwhile, Vail was thinking that they needed to reinvigorate the board. So when I went to step down, they asked me to step up. They asked me to care about the mission, not just them.”

For Jerry, this was a transformative moment. “I sunk my teeth into it and it caught fire in my mind. It’s as clear as day in my head, the vision of those kids with the deer-in-the-headlight look. Now, we teach them to advocate for themselves, and we make sure they know that college, employment, and fulfilling lives are in their future. Talking to someone who, after a decade or two on benefits, has just received his first paycheck; or hearing from a student who has just received a college scholarship; or seeing a kid with joystick mobility sit in an e-hockey cart and, with a flick of his finger, fly ... The pure joy on those faces rocks me! For us to be able to change someone’s life trajectory in such a dramatic way is amazing,” Jerry says.

Chairing Incight’s board has clearly been a profound experience for Jerry. But he is modest about the extent of his contributions. Scott, currently Incight’s development director, is happy to fill in the gaps. “When Vail stepped down as board chair, Jerry stepped in. He’s seen every ebb and flow of the organization, and the moment he became chair he gave Incight renewed energy and new leadership,” Scott says.

The story of Incight is very much the story of its founders and its volunteers—categories that very much overlap.

Find out for yourself just how wonderful an organization Incight is: join us at their gala on Oct. 4 at the Portland Art Museum.