History and Mission

In a time of crisis, it may be reassuring to know that there is another family that's been in your shoes: the Shepherds.

James Shepherd set out on a backpacking trip around the world in 1973 after graduating from the University of Georgia. While bodysurfing off a beach in Rio de Janeiro, he was slammed to the ocean floor by a wave. James, who was 22 at the time, sustained a serious spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the neck down.

After spending five weeks in a Brazilian hospital struggling to survive, he returned to the United States. With the help of a family friend - Clark Harrison, the former DeKalb County commission chairman who'd been paralyzed since being shot by a German sniper in 1944 - the Shepherd family located a rehabilitation treatment facility in Colorado. After six months of intensive rehabilitation, James regained his ability to walk while using a cane and a leg brace.

After returning home to Atlanta, James and his parents - Harold and Alana Shepherd - were frustrated with the lack of rehabilitation care options in the Southeast. With the help of Mr. Harrison and David Webb, chairman of President Carter's White House Conference on Handicapped Individuals, the Shepherds hurled themselves headlong into the task of creating a rehabilitation center.

With enthusiastic support, Shepherd Center was founded in 1975 as a six-bed unit operating out of leased space in an Atlanta hospital. Almost immediately there was a waiting list.

Historical Timeline

1975 - 1995

The Shepherds began recruiting support, first from old friends in the community, then from every individual, foundation or corporation who might help back the facility. They also recruited David Apple, a young doctor who was willing to put long hours in to care for patients. Dr. Apple served as Medical Director from the beginning and now serves as Medical Director Emeritus.

In 1982, Shepherd Center moved to its current location on Peachtree Road in Atlanta's Buckhead neighborhood. The Center became a free-standing 40-bed facility. Ten years later, Shepherd doubled its size with an addition, the Billi Marcus Building - named for the resolute fundraiser and wife of Home Depot chairman Bernie Marcus. The new space allowed Shepherd to expand outpatient services and provided space for its Multiple Sclerosis Institute.

In 1995, Shepherd Center opened a 20-bed unit for people with brain injuries and in 1997 added Shepherd Pathways, a residential rehabilitation center in neighboring Decatur, that provides community-based outpatient services and a day program for ABI patients. Over the years, Shepherd has also added treatment services for people with neurological injuries and illnesses, such as Guillain-Barré syndrome, transverse myelitis and post-polio syndrome.


As the demand for Shepherd Center’s services kept pace with its growing national reputation, the hospital saw an increased demand for specialty care among patients from all across the nation.

Each year Shepherd Center found it was forced to turn away more and more patients who needed its services. The waiting list for beds, as well as the explosive growth of Shepherd’s outpatient and day therapy treatment programs, spurred expansion plans.

In 2005, Shepherd Center embarked on a major expansion that nearly doubled the size of the hospital when it was completed two years later in 2007. Named the Jane Woodruff Pavilion, the expansion created a welcoming, supportive and fully-accessible environment for patients and their families, as well as staff, volunteers and visitors. Among other things, the expansion increased the number of patient beds from 100 to 120, and provided additional therapy gyms and treatment rooms, a new cafeteria and dining facility and additional office space.

2008 - today

In 2008, Shepherd Center completed a $16 million residential center adjacent to the hospital that provides temporary housing for families of patients so they can be near their loved one during rehabilitation.

The 87,000-square-foot facility includes 84 wheelchair accessible suites, each containing a bedroom, living space, kitchenette and bathroom. In addition, the Residence Center features a family lounge, a large meeting room and a conference space

The facility is named the Irene and George Woodruff Family Residence Center.

In 2010, Shepherd Center completed a $9.8 million renovation and remodeling project that created more private rooms for patients, added a second brain injury unit, and reconfigured and remodeled various units in the Center.

In 2014, Shepherd Center embarked on a $12.5 million renovation and building project to add 13,000 square feet for an expanded and updated lab, pharmacy and MRI suite.

Today, Shepherd Center is a state-of-the-art facility with 152 beds, including a 10-bed intensive care unit. In 2018, Shepherd had 935 admissions to its inpatient programs and 541 to its day patient programs. In addition, more than 7,300 people were seen on an outpatient basis.

Shepherd Center conducts up to 50 research projects annually and is a Spinal Cord Injury Model Center, as designated by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research. Shepherd Center is also ranked among the top 10 best rehabilitation hospitals in the nation by U.S. News & World Report.

Each Shepherd family member is still a dedicated advocate for the Center. James Shepherd serves as the Center's Chairman of the Board. His mother, Alana Shepherd, continues to raise funds, welcome new patients and serves as the Board's Recording Secretary. James' father, Harold Shepherd, the founder of Shepherd Construction Company, one of the largest in Georgia, worked to recruit friends and associates to help support the Center. He passed away in December 2018.

More than a hospital, Shepherd Center is a strong advocate for all people with disabilities. Shepherd has worked regionally to make the rapid transit system, sports complexes, airports, local businesses and housing more accessible. The hospital sponsors 11 wheelchair sports teams, and has served as official sponsor of the wheelchair division of the Peachtree Road Race since 1984. Shepherd was also the founding sponsor of the 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games, bringing 3,310 world-class athletes with disabilities from 104 nations to Atlanta for Olympic-level competition.

Although Shepherd has evolved greatly in the last four decades, it remains dedicated to helping people with catastrophic injuries and illnesses reclaim their lives with dignity, independence and hope.

Our Mission

Shepherd Center's mission is to help people with a temporary or permanent disability caused by injury or disease, rebuild their lives with hope, independence and dignity, advocating for their full inclusion in all aspects of community life while promoting safety and injury prevention.