Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Carrying friend in backpack, next stop China

By Louise Kinross

In 2016 we told you about Kevan Chandler's trip to Europe with friends who carried him in a modified backpack when places wouldn't accommodate his wheelchair. Kevan, who lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana, has spinal muscular atrophy and weighs about 65 lbs. Sitting in an adapted child carrier worn by his friends, Kevan and the group hopped over stiles in the British countryside, climbed up 600 rock steps to an Irish monastery, and checked out the underground cemetery in Paris. 

Since then, Kevan and his friends have released a film of their European travels and started a non-profit group to promote accessible travel. Kevan now has his sights set on a trip to China in 2019. We did this interview by e-mail.

BLOOM: Why did you decide on China as your next tour?

Kevan Chandler: Even while we were in Europe, the guys and I talked about visiting China. One of our guys has a niece and nephew who were adopted from China, and he'd gone with the family to get them. So we had that connection and perspective, plus we had interactions with numerous Chinese tourists while in France, which helped to prompt the conversation.

It's an old, magical, and exciting place to explore, and like anywhere in the world, it's also a place where we could maybe be an encouragement in regards to disabilities. Then, last year, a great door opened for us to connect with an organization called Show Hope that serves orphans with disabilities there, which really solidified the idea to go.

BLOOM: Will you be using the same backpack and also taking your wheelchair?

Kevan Chandler: We have a newly developed backpack, along the same lines as the original, but more professionally done. We'll be using that, and like our last trip, we won’ be taking my wheelchair.

BLOOM: Are you travelling with the same friends who carried you through Europe?

Kevan Chandler: We will have the same film crew, and two of the four carriers. The other two guys just had other stuff going on. So, we've added two other carriers, who are friends of mine from Fort Wayne. We will also have a translator with us and a project manager, who will keep us on track.

BLOOM: You plan to visit a series of care centres for children with health issues and disabilities supported by Show Hope. Why?

Kevan Chandler:
Yeah, we are really excited for the opportunity! I'm reminded of what Jesus said about kids, and I can't help but see the Kingdom of God in these little ones and the folks working with them. So much need, so much vulnerability, and so much love to redeem it all. Who wouldn't want to be part of that? Our hope is to be encouragers of the good work that's already being done among the kids and care staff there. We can't wait to spend time with them, play, share our story, hear their stories, and also take some backpacks like mine for the staff to use with the kids.

BLOOM: Do you know what percentage of these children are adopted? 

Kevan Chandler: I'm not really qualified to answer this. And at the same time, we as a team are more focused on the current circumstances of these kids and meeting them in that, with the bit we can do to help. It's important to be faithful with what's in front of you to do, right?

BLOOM: Where will you be staying on the trip? 

Kevan Chandler: We plan to do some exploring around both countrysides and cities, but the Care Centers of Show Hope will be kind of like our hubs that we come back to and spend most of our time.

BLOOM: Are you anticipating any challenges in China that you didn’t experience in Europe?

Kevan Chandler: Well, there is the language barrier! Haha! There is that, but also a pretty extreme difference in culture that we will need to navigate. These are all things we dealt with in Europe, especially France and Wales, but China just takes it all to the next level, so we will have a translator traveling with us to be of assistance.

BLOOM: Are there particular places or historic sites you’re eager to see?

Kevan Chandler: Yeah, we are excited to visit the Shaolin Temple and the Great Wall, for starters!

BLOOM: I think you raised about $35,000 US to cover the cost of your Europe trip. How many weeks will you be in China and what will the total cost be? Is there a link to your funding page?

Kevan Chandler: Yes, and we were pleased to end up on a similar budget for this trip to China. With travel included, we will be gone about three weeks, like with Europe. This trip is budgeted at $40,000US, which makes sense because it's farther and our team is a bit larger (nine of us vs. the seven that went to Europe). We just launched our GoFundMe page this week, and since we're now a 501(c)3, any donations are tax deductible.

BLOOM: I notice you are taking a translator. Do any of you speak Chinese?

Kevan Chandler: Nope. That's why we have the translator, a really cool friend of ours from China who lives nowadays in British Columbia.

BLOOM: What messages about disability do you hope people take when they see you on your trips?

Kevan Chandler:
I think it's bigger than just disability. We are all broken in some way or another, and we're all looking for some relief. So, when folks see a guy carrying another guy whose brokenness is so clear, I hope they see themselves.

What I love most when I travel is when walls come down and people just start sharing honestly about their own lives and experiences. It's a stark expression of what we all feel and desire inside, so we act as a kind of ice-breaker for people to look inward and dig deep. My hope is that that winds them up at a place of peace, whether they are encouraged or challenged, because both—if received—end up at the same place.

BLOOM: You said you’ve started a non-profit called We Carry Kevan since your Europe trip. Do you sell backpacks like the one you use? What does the non-profit do?

Kevan Chandler: We did start a nonprofit! We are working with Deuter to develop a backpack like mine for mass-production. Our hope is to have them available in the Spring of 2019. In the meantime, we are customizing a few backpacks ourselves here and there, and we are also taking time to tour, speak, and spend time with people.

Our mission statement says it best: ‘Believing in the inherent value of all people, We Carry Kevan mobilizes individuals with disabilities by redefining accessibility as a cooperative effort.’ That job of redefining involves a lot of examples lived out and a lot of conversations had, and it's been amazing to see those opportunities come with the nonprofit these past few years.

BLOOM: Do you know of any other people with disabilities who were inspired by your Europe trip to try to do something similar? I’m imagining that the backpack option only works for people who are very light?

Kevan Chandler: It's been wonderful these past few years to see, hear from, and meet folks, both disabled and able-bodied, who are inspired by our adventure. And the backpack was just our way of doing things. It will work for some people and not for others.

But the the backpack isn't the be-all and end-all. It's a tool to exercise the deeper idea, which is that accessibility comes with courage and creativity and people working together. So it's been awesome to see people getting that and acting on it in their own way. It's been a joy to come alongside them in their adventures.

BLOOM: Are you still working as a sound editor producing podcasts?

Kevan Chandler: No, actually! Just recently, I stepped out of that career to give We Carry Kevan my full attention.

BLOOM: What are your thoughts on the new treatment Spinraza for people with spinal muscular atrophy? Is this something you are interested in pursuing?

Kevan Chandler:
I'm excited to see its positive effects on my sister as she participates, and my hope is that it does provide relief and strength for folks with SMA who go that route. I am personally not involved at this time.


Kevan and team,

thank you for sharing your reasons to go to China.

Hope you love everything there and learn a lot and make some lasting connections.