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Friends and faith help Kevan Chandler live life

They carried him around Europe last summer

From left to right. Ben Duvall, Kevan Chandler carried by Philip Keller, Tom Troyer, Robbie Barnes during the group's visit to London last summer. Prince Albert Hall is behind them. (Courtesy photo)

Because of spinal muscular atrophy, Fort Wayne’s Kevan Chandler may be confined to a wheelchair, but thanks to his friends he is certainly not limited to one.

Though the messages from his brain to his spinal cord are garbled and cause his limbs to atrophy, Chandler, 31, has an amazing core of friends in North Carolina and Fort Wayne who help him live life. He met many working in the music industry as a harmonica player and podcast editor, and they all take part in caring for his needs. It’s an accepted part of who he is, so much that his friends don’t consider it as requiring extra effort. They figure out how things can work in different ways because he’s simply part of the group and that’s naturally what they do. He’s not a burden but a blessing.

As one of the buddies said, “When you have a dream, everybody understands teamwork makes the dream work.”

But around mid-June, 2015 Chandler came up with something that would test them all: a tour of Europe without his wheelchair. A wheelchair would anchor them and limit their opportunities, and instead, he would ride along in a backpack. The first gut reaction from everyone should have been, “That’s a great idea, but…” There were a few of those, of course, but the main reaction was “How can we make this work?”

“We didn’t know if it would really happen until we were on the plane,” Chandler said. “We were waiting for the other shoe to drop. There were plenty of moments where we were kind of worried.”

But they never lost faith, which plays a tremendous part in their story. First, they had to figure out how physically to make the situation work. Chandler and his buddies redesigned a Deuter backpack which was designed to carry a toddler up to 48 pounds. Chandler weighs 65 pounds. The backpack had to be reinforced, recovered in hammock material and tested in various ways. The seat had to be designed so he could be comfortable but also sit high enough with a neck support to see over the head of the person carrying him. He also had to be stable enough to help the person carrying him maintain balance.

Then they had to raise the money for the trick, approximately $35,000 for seven men, and started a GoFundMe page. Things were a little slow until the effort started receiving media attention that spread nationally. As social media reached out, a family in England offered to host them, and they started a non-profit foundation “We Carry Kevan,” which has approximately 37,000 likes on Facebook. Dozens of families facing similar challenges wrote in to ask how the fundamentals of the process would work.

Momentum was on their side helping push things forward.

“I was utterly surprised and blown away with every success we had,” said Tom Troyer, a singer and songwriter from Greensboro. “I didn’t want to say no, but there were so many conversations where I was shaking my head talking to the other guys and saying, `This is very unlikely to happen.’

“Kevan has really helped me to see in ways that he does. He has shown me that God does quite a lot through unsuspecting people and surprises us quite often. Kevan’s faith touches so many people.”

The trip worked perfectly. They spent a week in France, England and Ireland. Ben Duvall, Philip Keller, Robbie Barnes and Troyer were the muscle carrying Chandler, while Luke Thompson and Jamison Hill were the filmmakers who chronicled everything for a documentary. The carriers would serve for 45 to an hour at a time, taking every fourth day off when they could do anything they liked, including leaving the group. A second backpack taken as a precaution was never needed.

“My thing with traveling is I’m not a tourist,” Chandler said. “I don’t necessarily want to see this famous site and that famous site. I don’t like just passing through a place to say I’ve been there. I want to settle in. We went to all these places because I wanted to be a part of them. We weren’t just going to pass through.”

He wanted to become part of what he was seeing, not change them. Some of the areas would have been inaccessible to a wheelchair, but the backpack allowed them to experience the atmosphere.

The only injury had nothing to do with a sore back or pulled leg muscle. While riding in a car, the driver had to stand on the brakes to avoid an accident and Chandler suffered a broken nose when he jerked forward.

They anchored in Paris for a week and took off each day to explore. During a stop in London, they asked for help exchanging currency and then had to explain their trek.

“We watched them go from happy-go-lucky to tearing up,” Troyer said. “It was really cool to have the opportunity to see others be inspired by what we were doing. Everywhere we went, people went out of their way to help us.”

Maybe ironically, the friends don’t consider that they were helping Chandler fulfill his dream as much as he figured out a way to take them along. This wasn’t a sacrifice for them, but a natural exploration of their friendship, an opportunity to bond even closer as a family of people. Chandler just has a knack of making things work for himself and them.

If anything, one the trip, he was more dependent upon his friends than normal because he didn’t have his wheelchair.

“We just figured it out,” Troyer said. “We just went for it. All the best things just happened, and it really has impacted our faith to understand that God provides.”

And he’s still providing, as Chandler sees it. He’s writing one book, planning another, running the website http://wecarrykevan.com and working on a documentary about the trip.

The “We Carry Kevan” foundation has provided so many opportunities to speak and inspire others (taking his friends along) that since July he’s only been home in Fort Wayne for only about two weeks. Hundreds of people and families have reached out to ask about backpacks. Before the trip, he was a podcast editor, and since he’s been trying to find time to fit that work in. Now he has plans to travel and speak all over the world.

“I can see how the Lord has developed my life to be what is is, which is inspiring and building people up, bringing people together and challenging the status quo of disability,” he said. “And saying no, this isn’t what it has to look like. Let’s think outside the chair and outside the box! I can definitely see how the Lord put that together in my life.”

His entire life has become about proving with friends and faith there are no limitations.

For more on local sports, follow Blake Sebring on Twitter at www.twitter.com/blakesebring and on Facebook at Blake Sebring.

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