Undergraduate Ryan Cusack receives USA Today Student Leadership Award

Sara LaJeunesse
October 01, 2013

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- James Jay Edward Thomas Jr. never let his disability hold him back from his love of sports. The former member of Penn State's Ability Athletics wheelchair basketball team passed away in September 2012, just shy of his 40th birthday.

To honor Thomas's life, Ryan Cusack, a kinesiology major and president of the Penn State Adaptive Outreach Club, organized the first annual Jay Thomas Memorial Wheelchair Basketball Tournament, which was held in December 2012.

For his effort with the tournament as well as his other work helping people with disabilities, Cusack received the 2012-13 USA Today Student Leadership Award. 

The purpose of this award shall be to recognize a Penn State Commonwealth or University Park student --  sophomore or junior year or a first-year senior -- who has made valuable contributions in the areas of service and volunteerism to the Penn State community and its surrounding areas such as:
• On-going involvement and contribution to service leadership
• Initiated programming efforts engaging student and community volunteers
• Strong commitment to academic excellence
• Serves as an officer and/or committee chair or demonstrates significant on-going contributions to and responsibility for an organization
• Has provided exceptional, on-going service to an organization, the Penn State campus and local communities
• Demonstrated leadership with integrity

"Jay lost his leg due to health complications and was forced to spend his life in a wheelchair," said Cusack. "Although it was sometimes difficult for him, he always showed up to every single Adaptive Outreach event with a smile, and this annual wheelchair basketball is put on with the purpose of honoring his life."

The inaugural Jay Thomas Wheelchair Basketball Tournament was co-hosted by the Adaptive Outreach Club and the Penn State Ability Athletics program. The daylong tournament consisted of four-person basketball teams contesting for a first-place prize.

Proceeds from the wheelchair basketball tournament are donated to THON because of Thomas's passion for the event. The next tournament will be held in December 2013.

Cusack first became interested in helping people with disabilities as a high-school student. He has maintained this passion as a student at Penn State, where he is a volunteer with Penn State Ability Athletics and Penn State's Inclusive Recreation for Wounded Warriors Program, a class for U.S. military personnel on how to provide recreation opportunities for people with disabilities.

Cusack also was instrumental in bringing Ill-Abilities to campus in October 2012. Ill-Abilities is an international group of b-boys (breakdancers) that have overcome extraordinary challenges to become some of the best dancers in the world. Cusack also recently was selected as the student representative for the planning committee of "Penn State's "Diversability" Awareness Month, which focuses on the abilities and talents of people with disabilities.

Last Updated October 02, 2013