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Beating the Odds: Paralyzed Haitian Earthquake Victim To Race in Paralympics

The Walkabout Foundation has given 2,500 wheelchairs worldwide, including to Leon Gaisli, a cyclist in this year's Paralympic Games.

For any athlete, qualifying for the Paralympic Games is no easy feat. But for Haitian hand-cyclist Leon Gaisli, arriving at London’s athlete’s village this week was particularly improbable.

In January 2010, the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck the island claimed the lives of Gaisli's wife and eight children—and left him paralyzed. “He was one of the first people I met right after the earthquake when I was in the North of Haiti,” says Carolina Gonzalez-Bunster, co-founder of the Walkabout Foundation, a nonprofit that funds paralysis research. “He was lying in a bed and all he wanted was a wheelchair.”

Four months later, Gonzalez-Bunster returned to Haiti and delivered. Gaisli got a "rough rider" wheelchair with an adjustable design and easily replaceable bike parts and tires that make it a great fit for underdeveloped areas. The Walkabout Foundation has distributed some 2,500 rough riders in the past two years. The nonprofit's mission is twofold: to fund research to find a cure for paralysis caused by spinal chord injuries and to donate adaptive wheel chairs to those with impaired mobility around the world by fundraising.

Gonzalez-Bunster’s career in mobility awareness has personal roots. In 1994, her brother Luis, Walkabout's other co-founder, suffered a spinal cord injury in a car accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down. In 2008, when Gonzalez-Bunster was working for Goldman Sachs, the siblings headed to their local YMCA for a swim only to find the brand new, multi-million dollar facility not wheelchair accessible.

Thus began a local campaign which morphed into an international charity. The success also compelled Gonzalez-Bunster—who describes her job at Goldman as “making rich people richer”—to quit her job at the depths of the financial crisis.

“People thought I was crazy. They said ‘You’re quitting your job—when everyone else is losing their jobs—to start a charity?’ But this was just more meaningful to me.”

Today, the Walkabout Foundation, a registered charity in both the US and UK, partners with established healthcare organizations like Partners in Health, Millennium Promise, and the Clinton Foundation, all of which operate on the ground in developing countries around the world. These links to local communities are essential because, as Gonzalez-Bunster explains, distributing wheelchairs in places like Rwanda, Lesotho, or Pakistan is not quite the same thing as sending boxes of medical gear or sacks of emergency food provisions.

“Sending a 40 foot container, getting it through customs, transporting it from the entry port to local villages, finding a local recipient, and then training healthcare professionals to adjust the wheelchairs to the needs of individuals is very complicated,” Bunster said. “We’re not sending one-size-fits all wheelchairs.”

Since the quake in Haiti, the Walkabout Foundation has also partnered with The Dream Foundation, which supported athletes like Gaisli to train and compete in London this year. Thanks to this partnership, this summer's Paralympic games will also be broadcast on Television National D'Haiti for the first time.

Gonzalez-Bunster is excited at the buzz around the nearly-sold out games. “I think what [Paralympians] are doing is more of a feat than what an regularly-abled person can do,” Bunster said. “I always make a point to say ‘a person with a disabilty’ rather than ‘disabled.’ It’s just one part of who they are, not the defining factor.”

She'll be rooting Gaisli on when he competes in two road cycling races next week.

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