By Jessica Thomas

“Friends tell me all the time they forget I’m in a wheelchair,” says Teal Sherer, 28, who has been paralyzed from the waist down since a near-fatal car crash when she was 14.

“I’ve experienced and learned about something not many people know about,” she says. “I’m smarter and better for it. You either face life, or you sit it out. I didn’t want to sit out.”

The Therapeutic Recreation program at the Shepherd Center in Buckhead helped Sherer, who is from Knoxville, Tenn., avoid sitting out so that today she is a Los Angeles-based actor, producer, writer, dancer and activist for performers with disabilities.

Before her accident, Sherer swam competitively, played basketball and was a cheerleader. Therapeutic Recreation got her swimming and playing basketball again, as well as taking art classes, during her stay in 1995.

The benefits were physical and mental, she said. “It was great to be reintroduced to those sports.”

Therapeutic Recreation helps improve physical, cognitive and social functioning so that a person can live as independently, actively and healthily as possible, said Shepherd’s annual events manager, Anne Pearce.

Health insurance does not cover Therapeutic Recreation, so to assist its efforts to help people like Sherer, the Shepherd Center Junior Committee is holding its annual Derby Day fundraising party at 2 p.m. May 2 at Foxhall Farm, a 1,200-acre horse farm in Douglasville.

The committee has held the event on the first Saturday in May, the day of the Kentucky Derby, since 1981. It draws thousands of people a year in seersucker suits, sun dresses and the huge hats that are a famous part of the Churchill Downs scene.

“Everyone has a great time watching the Kentucky Derby on big screens, betting on the winners, bidding on the various items in the live and silent auctions, and dancing,” said Ryan Hoyt, an event co-chairman this year. Local band Money $hott will play Derby Day.

The Shepherd Center Junior Committee, a group of 300-plus professionals in their 20s and early 30s, has contributed more than $3.5 million to Therapeutic Recreation and other Shepherd programs, Hoyt said. He is hopeful that this year’s event will match those of past years despite the recession.

Tickets are $60 in advance or $70 at the door. Visit www.derbyday.com, or contact Pearce at 404-350-7302 or anne_pearce@shepherd.org.