Born in Jamaica with spina bifida, Mark Braun was abandoned in a trash bin as an infant. After a police officer heard his cries, he was placed in a crowded orphanage in the mountains where many children never reached adulthood.
He dodged death again with the help of a handful of Minnesota charities, which sent food to his orphanage, brought used wheelchairs up the mountain for the kids, and placed young Mark on the lap of a kindly church volunteer from Mounds View who fought to adopt him.
Today Braun, 23, is one of the fastest wheelchair sprinters in the United States and has his sights set on the 2020 Summer Paralympics in Tokyo.
He clocked a 100-meter sprint in 14.88 seconds and competed two years ago in the International Paralympic Committee Athletics World Championships in Qatar.
"His story is pretty amazing," said Braun's coach, Brett Followay, who works with Adaptive Sports Program of Ohio. "He is very, very gifted. He is a natural athlete. ... He's fun. He's an all-around good guy."
Braun, who is also a four-time national wheelchair basketball champion with the Junior Rolling Timberwolves, uses a custom-fit race chair with three wheels. His arms and abs do all the work.
But competing isn't all he does. Strongly influenced by his activist mother, Claire, Braun has already jumped into philanthropy and advocacy.
He travels around the world not only to compete but also to advocate for people with disabilities. He used a meeting with the prime minister of Jamaica to convince the government to release seven disabled children for international adoption.
"I want to be the voice for these kids," Braun said. "I want to help them be successful in life."
When he's home in Minnesota, Braun visits hospitals to introduce kids and parents to adaptive sports. He coaches other athletes with disabilities, and he works part-time at the Emma B. Howe YMCA in Coon Rapids.
Braun is featured in the Science Museum of Minnesota's new Sportsology interactive sprint exhibit. He filmed a video at the State Fair on the challenges of getting around on wheels; access remains a near-daily struggle, he said, even though the Americans with Disabilities Act is 27 years old.
"His personality is magnetic. He is someone who when he talks to you, he makes you feel very special," said Margie Rask, executive director at the Y. "He has the innate ability to work with kids. He sees them for who they are. He doesn't talk down to them."
Braun said he's proof that a little help can go a long way. "I am all for inclusiveness and getting kids engaged," he said.
He cut in line
Sitting in her Mounds View home office recently, surrounded by photos of her 11 children, Claire Braun recounted her first meeting with her son Mark. A nurse and teacher by trade, she has adopted eight children with complex medical conditions and fostered another 75 over four decades.
The orphanage where she met Mark around 1987 was "bumper-to-bumper beds. There were three or four kids sideways on each bed," she said. Each child received two spoonfuls of food packaged and sent there by Coon Rapids-based Feed My Starving Children. Until age 5, Mark crawled around the orphanage with his arms, pulling his legs behind him.
"I knew when I saw him [that] if he didn't get off the island, he'd be a statistic," she said.
He was so excited when Minnesota volunteers brought wheelchairs that he cut in line. Claire Braun said she scooped up the eager little boy and held him on her lap until it was his turn to be fitted for a chair. He began to sing as they waited, and she made the decision right there to adopt him.
It wasn't easy. Jamaica, fearful of exploitation and human trafficking, is wary of international adoptions. Claire Braun was able to bring Mark to Minnesota on a medical visa. At the airport, he reluctantly left his wheelchair in exchange for a teddy bear and promises that he'd get a new one in America.
After a year of tests, Shriners Hospitals for Children in the Twin Cities treated him. He's undergone more than a dozen surgeries.
Mark started school. He climbed the tree in the backyard. Against all odds, he taught himself to stand up and walk a bit around the house even though he had no muscles below the knees.
He used his wheelchair to zip around the house, amazing his mother with each new accomplishment. "His arms were so strong. Once he got his first set of wheels, he could go fast and speed was his thing," she said.
Claire Braun introduced her son to adaptive sports at Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute, headquartered in Golden Valley, and he took off — basketball, softball, track, even Nordic skiing.
"It's been really fun to see Mark grow as an athlete and to see him take on more of a mentorship role," said Megan Welty, a supervisor at Courage Kenny. "He has worked very hard to get where he is today."
Meeting the prime minister
At Irondale High School in New Brighton, Mark helped make Minnesota sports history in 2011 when he joined the track and field team and competed in the first-ever wheelchair division.
Granted a trip through Make-A-Wish, he used the opportunity to give back.
"I went back to Jamaica and threw parties at two orphanages and gave toys to all the kids," he said. That's when he met with the prime minister to make a case for more international adoptions.
Braun graduated from Irondale in 2012 and interned at Medtronic before joining the Y two years ago as a youth development team member. The job is flexible, allowing him to train six days a week and travel. At the Y, he spends time in the gym working with kids of all abilities.
He said he likes to challenge kids to try shooting baskets from a sitting position before having them stand to understand their potential. He asked his bosses at the Y to add more adaptive sports and improve access to facilities and equipment, Rask said.
"He pushed me from day one," she said, adding that his feedback had helped her spot programs that could be started or improved.
One of Braun's newest projects is helping his mother coach the Rolling Thunder track team for kids and teens with disabilities.
Followay said people with disabilities need the same support and structure to succeed that able-bodied athletes rely on.
"No one is going to make it on their own. You have to have a team behind you," he said.