Interview with Kevan Chandler
Kevan Chandler is a 30 year-old author with Spinal Muscular Atrophy. He’s written two novels and a Bible commentary, which are available on Amazon, and is currently writing two new novels (one about his trip to Europe). Kevan lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana most of the time. When he’s not traveling, you can find him at a coffee shop downtown, called Fortezza. Feel free to send him mail there or even stop by to hang out. He’ll buy you a cup of coffee.
Can you tell me a little about how the dream of you wanting to backpack across Europe came about? Is it something you’ve always wanted to do?
I've always wanted to visit Europe. My dad's side of the family came from England and Ireland only a hundred years ago or so. Several of my favorite authors (all long dead nowadays) are from England or spent time there. And one of my greatest inspirations is a musician from France. So I've had reasons to go, a great tugging, but I never knew how I could do it, since I'm in a wheelchair and most of these places and the things I wanted to do aren't handicap accessible. A few years ago, I started thinking of doing a social experiment in which I spent a weekend or week without my wheelchair. My friends would work together to care for me and I'd go places and do things I normally couldn't. As the conversation started, one friend suggested we explore the sewer system of Greensboro and they carry me in a sort of backpack. Before this, I just figured I'd be carried like normal in their arms. But we tried for the backpack idea and went into the sewers one night. It was makeshift and definitely had room for improvement, but the concept was there, and that's when the possibilities set in. So, about a year later, I asked those same guys, "Remember that sewer thing? What if we do that above ground for a few weeks in Europe?" They were all for it and so the planning began.
What were the biggest barriers you faced while planning this trip?
Well, we had no problem getting folks excited about the trip. It's something anyone can root for and it produces a contagious energy that spread like wildfire. Barriers came, I believe, in two forms. First off, in myself, struggling with doubts of why we were doing this or how on earth we'd pull it off. Every step of the way, amazing things would happen and stuff would come together, and I was just waiting for the other shoe to drop. I'm typically an optimistic person, but this was just so crazy an idea, so outlandish, and our audience was growing exponentially, so as the potential impact of failure increased, the impossibility of the goals and the fear of failing became more and more potent. But with this, I just had to trust the Lord, put it back in his hands, and trust my friends and hope for the best. There were a lot of walks by myself where I verbally slapped myself around, "Get yourself together, Kevan!" Our only other great barrier was communicating to European connections exactly what we were doing. I remember, we found the perfect AirBnB in Paris and they denied us because they weren't handicap accessible. We wrote back and had to more clearly explain, "No, that's fine! We don't need it to be accessible." And when we made our reservations for Skellig Michael, we were at first turned down because they either thought I wanted to take my wheelchair or they thought the guys would just carry my over their shoulders. So, making it clear what we were doing, and especially that we knew what we were doing, was very key in communicating. It also helped us to check ourselves and prepare in such a way that we really did, confidentially, know what we were doing. Barriers help us grow, don't they?!
How did you go about enlisting a team of friends to help carry you?
A few of them were "shoe-ins," due to our previous experiences together. So, we started with three of us. I knew I wanted my friend Tom Troyer, as the sewer trip was his idea and doing. And if this was happening, I wanted my friend Luke Thompson along to film the experience. From there, I chose guys based on their ability to care for me, and their personality. It had to be a team that would work well together. I had guys lined up around the corner, wanting to go, and it was a tough choice. A lot of them fell into a category of "Not this time, but yes definitely another." In the end, we brought on Ben Duvall, who is my primary care giver (and roommate) where I live, in Fort Wayne. And we added Philip Keller as well, who was part of the original sewer group. Later, we added an EMT named Robbie Barnes, and a second videographer, Jamison Hill.
Which countries did you visit and which was your favorite?
We went for three weeks, visiting France for a week, England for a week, and Ireland for a week. We also had a day in Wales on our way to Ireland. I can safely say I didn't have a favorite, although I do plan to revisit England more so than the others. I think it's just in my blood. I feel more drawn there. Also, I did everything I wanted to do in France and Ireland, whereas I could've spent a month in England and still had a list left of things I wanted to do.
Your story really took off online, where and how many different interviews and features did you participate in while preparing for your trip?
I've lost track, honestly! We did seven major network interviews, maybe a dozen newspaper and radio interviews, and all of these were replicated by subsidiaries. So, we showed in news all over the States, Germany, France, England, Ireland, Russia, China, Japan, parts of South Africa, Canada, Sweden, Norway, Israel. It was crazy!
What do you consider to be the bravest parts of your journey? Whether while on the trip or during the process (launching a Kickstarter, getting your story out, doing interviews, etc.)
I remember when I first voiced the idea to some friends. "I'm thinking about doing this," and then writing to Tom and Luke about it. That stepping out, going from the safety of my brain to out in the open - there's no turning back then. And then back in February, I sat at a coffee shop outside Nashville and clicked "post" on Facebook for the first announcement and link to our Gofundme. Another big step that couldn't be taken back. We all have dreams and crazy ideas lingering in the back of our minds, and yeah it takes discernment to know which of those ideas are worthwhile or good ideas, but when you've got a good one, it takes unbelievable courage to transition it from the confines of your mind to a public expression. All it takes is a word or sentence out loud (or posted online), but that one breath can come with crippling anxiety. It's a game changer because, good idea or not, until then, you have no accountability to it. So, as adventurous and ominous some of the moments were in the trip, I think those initial steps of publicizing were the bravest.
Was there ever a moment or time when you felt timid or afraid? And if so, how did you cope and move forward?
Oh, all the time! I'm still terrified! We've done the trip, but now everyone's waiting for a book and film, and everyone's watching to see what we do next. I was scared on the ledges of Skellig Michael, that I'd fall 600 feet into rocks and freezing water, and I'm scared now, sitting in my living room, afraid that I'll fall short of writing a good book. But I believe that courage is not moving forward without fear. It's moving forward in spite of fear. If there was nothing to be afraid of, there'd be nothing to be brave about, right? So, I go for those walks, I pep talk myself, I talk with the Lord about it all, I trust those around me to help, and I just push forward. On Skellig, I had to trust Tom and Philip to step carefully and surely, I prayed A LOT, and I just went for it without looking back second guessing. I'm working on this book, putting my all into it, and trusting that'll be enough. It's a cliche, age-old line, but you can either let fear keep you safe or you can go out and see what amazing things can happen.
Did you ever feel like your friends carrying you might not be able to do it?
I trusted these guys with my life, but I also know the world is full of uncertainties. So I worried more that they'd trip or get hurt, get sick, whatever. Things really out of our control. And again, in those circumstances, I just had to trust them even more, and trust the Lord, and just go for it.
How did they train and prepare to carry you?
They all prepared differently, whether it was general workout, crossfit, biking, etc. I think we decided during the trip that their various trainings prepared them in different, very important ways. So, it was neat to see roles come out naturally from how they chose to prepare.
Do you think being brave allowed you to go on this journey? Or were there many other personal feelings that contributed to it?
The driving forces of the whole trip were two things - we just wanted to do it, and we wanted to use our experience to inspire others. We knew we'd be a spectacle, and we embraced that to hopefully change the world in some way. But every aspect of the trip was packed full of reasons to not do it. Fears, uncertainties, discomforts, stresses, straight-up dangers. With that said, I think courage was a major element.
Why do you think people often have a difficult time doing something brave?
Are you considering doing more trips like this one?
We are! Maybe some smaller-scale things for a while, then another big trip in a few years. But our main focus right now is to legitimize We Carry Kevan into a nonprofit, and use that to help other disabled folks live their dreams too.