Forging Their Way
When a life-altering accident took Luis Gonzalez-Bunster's ability to walk, it gave his sister Carolina an unbridled passion to bring change and hope to paralysis patients around the world.
Portrait photographs by William Taufic
Back in 1994 Luis Gonzalez-Bunster was returning from a late-night visit to his girlfriend’s house when his life changed forever. He was on Stanwich Road, a minute or two from home, as he distractedly reached for the radio of the Volkswagen Corrado he was driving. But the eighteen-year-old was going too fast, and he took a curve too wide. He has no recollection of the subsequent collision with the oncoming car. His next memory is of regaining consciousness, staring at the shattered windshield, and realizing he was badly hurt. In the small hours of the morning, he would clutch a paramedic’s hand. “Please don’t leave me,” he begged.
That the other driver escaped serious injury was a blessing. Heaven’s gift to Luis, on the other hand, was that he was alive at all. His neck was broken. And though he could move his arms, the doctors told him he would never walk again.
Over on Doubling Road, Luis’ parents would awaken to the odd-hour telephone call that everyone fears, and to a new order of life as they knew it. Although the entire family was affected by the accident, it left a particularly searing impression on Luis’s sister, Carolina, then just eleven. Of the siblings (there are five altogether), she was especially close to her brother. When she was a baby, seven-year-old Luis had gathered her in his arms and much to the amusement of the family proclaimed her his own, she was so cute. Years passed. Carolina went on to achieve success in her studies and her work, including stints with the William J. Clinton Foundation and Goldman Sachs. But still Luis’s condition tugged at her. “No matter how great anything can be at any given time there’s always something in the back of my mind that’s not right,” she says nearly eighteen years after the wreck. “And I know what’s not right; it’s the fact that my brother is bound to his wheelchair.”
When There's A Will
This is a story about change, of both the worst and best kinds that human beings can experience. Yet it is also a story about the redemptive power of love—of a sister’s love, and a family’s love—and how it came to salvage lives and deliver hope to desperate people around the world. So mighty was the pull of this familial bond that even former President Bill Clinton and celebrities like Emilio Estevez and his father, Martin Sheen, would be drawn into its orbit. Last fall, at the New York premiere of his movie, The Way, director Estevez said it was a “human miracle” that led him and his father to those with whom they shared the stage and for whom they were raising money that night: Carolina and Luis Gonzalez-Bunster and their young nonprofit, Walkabout Foundation.
The group, with headquarters in London and Greenwich, was started just a few years ago. But Carolina and Luis are already having a big impact. On one front, they’re helping to fund cutting-edge research into overcoming spinal-cord injuries. On another, they are providing specially designed, durable wheelchairs to needy people in Third World countries. All of this is against a backdrop of promoting awareness of paralysis.
“They’re amazing people,” says Peter T. Wilderotter, president and chief executive officer of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, which in 2010 honored them at its annual fete. “They saw globally that there was a need for wheelchairs that nobody really was meeting. But then on the research side, they saw that there were organizations that had already developed this space. They’re brilliant, talented, and innovative, and they have the wisdom to know that collaboration is the key. We’ve developed a strong relationship with them and we’re huge fans.”
That the striking, vibrant siblings (she is twenty-eight; he is thirty-six; both are single) could have passed for Hollywood luminaries at Estevez’s premiere/ fundraiser is also noteworthy. After all, theirs is a cause that the public in large part chooses to ignore, despite the obvious need. Paralysis plagues some six million Americans, including 1.3 million with spinal-cord injuries. Tens of millions of people around the world are forced to go without wheelchairs for lack of money to buy one. Good looks, enthusiasm, and fresh ideas are powerful weapons in getting the message out and winning support.
“We’re kind of a new flavor, new energy, new angle to this whole unsexy field of spinal-cord injuries, paralysis, and mobility disabilities,” says Carolina (pronounced with the Spanish accentuation, Caro-LEEna), who lives in London. “How are you going to make this trendy? How are you going to get attention? How are you going to get a celebrity involved? That’s what Walkabout tries to do. And that’s what sets us apart.”
Neither of the founders takes a salary. Nor do Carolina and Luis like spending money to raise money. They eschew traditional fundraisers like galas in favor of higher octane events, particularly sponsored “walkabouts” around cities (and in one case across Spain.) They want their activities to reflect the essence of their organization, which is getting disabled people to one day walk again. “So many benefits are about who’s there and mingling and having a fun social night,” Carolina says. “But do people really leave knowing and understanding what the foundation is all about? Quite frankly I don’t think they do.”
Hands On Help
Through their work, they have met everyone from top scientists in the field to the most grievous victims, including those left incapacitated by the temblors in Haiti and Chile. In October, they traveled to the University of California, Los Angeles, to get a closer look at research into the use of electrical stimulation of the spinal cord to return mobility, a venture they are helping fund. There, they spoke with
Dr. V. Reggie Edgerton, a leading researcher, and Rob Summers, a disabled former college baseball player who has shown remarkable progress with the experimental treatment. Not only has Summers, whose spine was severed when he was struck by a car, been able to stand and take some steps, but he’s seen improvement in bladder, bowel and sexual functions.
Despite being overdue at a private gathering with Bill Clinton, their father’s old college friend, the siblings and their parents lingered with Dr. Edgerton and Summers, peppering them with questions. “They stayed for three and a half hours,” remembers Wilderotter of the Reeve Foundation, which arranged the visit. “They were an hour late for the former President of the United States because they were so ingrained in learning about the research, and getting to know Rob and Reggie, and getting to really understand the plans for this project.”
Distributing wheelchairs around the world, the group’s other component addresses more immediate needs. Luis has foregone those trips because of personal medical issues, including a broken leg and a pinched nerve, as well as the impracticality of getting around most developing countries in a wheelchair. (“And if I’m saying that, imagine what it’s like for the people who live there,” he says.) But Carolina’s travels to Haiti, Rwanda, Chile and the Dominican Republic, and a growing list of other distressed places, have brought tears to her eyes. She has seen paralyzed people and others who are unable to walk piloting decrepit wheelchairs or being hauled about in shopping carts, wheelbarrows, office chairs and worse.
Tara Ahamed, a college friend and a Walkabout board member, says that Carolina was stirred by what she witnessed in Haiti when she went there right after the 2010 earthquake, as part of a group with Bill Clinton. At one point, Carolina came upon a disabled man being carted in a wheelbarrow along the side of a road. The human indignity hit Carolina hard, and she shared her reaction with her supporters back home. “I don’t think traumatic is the right word, but it was very hard for her to digest because you can read about it and you can see pictures, but walking through it was a totally eye-opening experience for her,” says Tara. “I think it fueled her even further and just pushed her forward.”
The Walkabout Foundation has empowered Carolina and Luis. Today they are active players in bringing about change rather than bystanders waiting for someone else to save the day. Carolina is the engine that drives the organization, handling administrative matters and logistics. Luis is largely the face of the group—or “poster boy,” as he puts it with a chuckle—as well as the resident expert and knowing voice for those who are paralyzed. Along with some loyal volunteers, the pair has raised nearly a million dollars, and they are just getting started.
“Ever since the accident I wanted to do something for my brother,” says Carolina. “But I didn’t know how to do it or what form it would take or what it would look like. It’s funny how things fall into place and pieces just start meshing and weaving together.”
Two Journeys Become One
Two weeks after graduating from Brunswick School, Luis had the entire summer—indeed, his entire life—before him. He was an active, athletic kid who liked sports, particularly tennis and soccer. His father Rolando, originally from Argentina and president of an electric concern in the Dominican Republic, had even had a tennis court put in on his property, in large part so that he and his eldest son could play together. And though Luis spent previous summers abroad, studying in England and Switzerland, he had yet to decide how he would fill the weeks before he left for college. “I thought I had time,” he says.
As ruinous as the accident was, Luis was quick to resume his life. Plans to attend Babson College, in Massachusetts, were jettisoned. But in January 1995, six months after he was injured, he started classes at the University of Miami, where he already had some close friends, and the weather and terrain were amenable to someone in a wheelchair. Balancing physical therapy and his studies, he completed three years of his schooling over five years. In all, he stayed in Florida for almost a decade before coming back to Greenwich.
Luis refuses to let his injury deter him. He and a partner run a business, Sysco Dominicana, that exports food to the Dominican Republic. Riding a hand cycle, he has competed in three marathons, including the New York City Marathon. He was among a group to complete the rigorous six miles of the wheelchair-accessible Greenway Trail at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. He’s even been skydiving.
And though Luis has achieved much, his journey has often been difficult, both physically and emotionally. College was particularly challenging. Back then, he was still learning the basics—dressing, bathing, and otherwise taking care of himself—a process he likens to being born again. He’d arrive late for a class and leave rather than go in, because he was embarrassed by his condition and the attention the wheelchair brought. “I didn’t like the pity in people’s eyes,” he says. “Before the accident, I was a healthy, strong eighteen-year-old, good looking, or whatever. And all of a sudden, the way girls look at you, the way people look at you, it changed. It hurt, the way that people looked at me. It reminded me that something devastating had happened.”
Time heals, but not all wounds. Sometimes, a person must endure. Luis has had medical setbacks as a result of his paralysis, including snapping his femur not long ago when he failed to make the transfer from the sofa to his wheelchair. “It’s a continuing battle all the time,” he says. “What it might look like to people on the outside, that everything is under control, is not always true.”
Luis is the first to say that he is fortunate, that others have suffered more debilitating injuries, have fewer resources, and lack the support system he enjoys. Still, when he came back to Greenwich in 2004, he felt a void in his life. The accident had given him a different perspective. He’d see folks become upset over practically nothing and shake his head. After all he’d been through, he knew that what mattered in this world was other people, and having one’s health. And though he considered starting a foundation of some sort, he dismissed it as too big a job to pull off by himself. Now, time was passing and it seemed less likely that it would ever happen.
Carolina, for her part, characteristically charged forward with her life. She graduated from Greenwich Academy in 2001, then it was off to Georgetown University, where she studied art history and government, and the London School of Economics for her master’s degree in international relations. Her first job out of school was with the Clinton Foundation, where she had volunteered during her summers in college. Working out of the London office of the Clinton Climate Initiative, she played a part in helping cities around the world reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
That her next job would be at Goldman Sachs was surprising. Word of the opening came unexpectedly, from a personal contact. Carolina had never even taken a class in economics or finance. Still, she was intrigued by the financial world and wanted to investigate. She stayed up all night poring through the Financial Times, Investing for Dummies, and a beginner’s guide to financial terms, and put on a brave face for her interview, never really expecting anything to come of it.
But the initial meeting went well. That led to a second interview, then another. When Goldman Sachs finally offered her the job, Carolina wasn’t about to let opportunity pass her by. So it was that she became a financial analyst, stationed first in London and then Dubai. The work was as fast paced and demanding as one might expect, and she learned a lot in a short time. But when the bottom fell out of the economy, with Dubai among the places hardest hit, her doubts took sharper focus. Her position, she says, was safe, but she questioned whether banking was really for her. “My heart and soul were not in it,” she admits. “I could not find happiness in crunching numbers and looking at the stock market and making rich people even richer. It just wasn’t me.”
She went back to Greenwich to be with her family, to take stock, and to think about what she was going to do. While she was home she noticed Luis, ever the fitness buff, swimming laps in the family’s pool outside, even as autumn settled in. When she looked into the possibility of him training in the new pool at the Greenwich YMCA, she was stunned to learn that the building offered no access for someone in a wheelchair. As it played out, Luis filed a lawsuit to change that and in a settlement agreement the YMCA agreed to install a temporary lift. “This is what we were looking for,” says Frank Peluso, the attorney who represented Luis. “All we wanted was for Luis to have access to the YMCA pool. This gave us the access. It also helped others to have access.”
It was during this period that Carolina began giving serious consideration to starting a nonprofit with her brother, an idea she had been toying with for years. She talked it over with Luis and they agreed to take the leap. In August 2009, Walkabout Foundation held its inaugural fundraiser, an arduous 540-mile trek across Spain. Carolina and her mother, Monica, hiked the historic Camino de Santiago de Compostella pilgrimage route. Luis, who rode his hand cycle, was joined part of the way by his father, on bicycle. He followed the “Way of St. James,” as the trail is known, when he could, and otherwise took to nearby roads. Their teenage brothers, Diego and Matias, also participated. In all, the month-long journey raised nearly $150,000.
The following January, a massive earthquake convulsed Haiti. With a humanitarian crisis unfolding, Bill Clinton, serving as UN special envoy, headed to the scene with a team that included Carolina’s father, who is on the Clinton Foundation’s board of trustees, to assess the situation. Carolina jumped at the chance to join them, and just six days after the quake found herself a midst the chaos. “Thousands of people were physically injured,” she says. “There were people who were amputees; there were people who were spinal-cord injured, paralyzed; and they didn’t have something as simple and as utilitarian as a wheelchair.”
With that, Walkabout found an added raison d’etre. The organization would continue to fund research, but now took on an entirely new aspect—providing wheelchairs, in Haiti, to begin, and then in other countries. Not even a consideration when they began, it would prove to be among the most rewarding parts of their work.
Six months after the earthquake, Carolina was in northern Haiti, giving wheelchairs to thirty victims who suffered spinal-cord injuries and who were languishing in a hospital because they were unable to get around. Carolina was pulled up short when she met a twenty-six-year-old named Samuel, who was paralyzed from the neck down after the roof of his home dropped on him. The problem was that the wheelchairs Carolina brought were for people who had lost only the use of their legs.
“And the look on this guy’s face when he saw every single one of his buddies getting a wheelchair and he’s the only one of that group that can’t get one was so heartbreaking and so devastating,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, we need to do something.’ I said, ‘Give me every single one of his measurements, I’m going to get the right chair for him.’ And we ordered a chair that is suitable for a quadriplegic, an electric chair that has the right support, neck support and what not, and we sent him that chair, and we got pictures, and he’s ecstatic.”
Path to the Future
Carolina is a highly motivated individual, which no doubt served her well at Goldman Sachs. “She is someone who could never be, for lack of a better term, a lady who lunches,” says her friend Tara Ahamed. But Carolina also knows how to make the most of serendipity. Last summer, her father was flying from London to Madrid when he found himself seated across the aisle from Emilio Estevez. While traversing Spain in 2009, the Gonzalez-Bunsters had heard that Estevez and Martin Sheen were making a movie involving the Camino de Santiago path. Now Rolando took the opportunity to tell Estevez of his own family’s trip and of Luis and Carolina and their foundation. As it turned out, both families had a mutual friend in Bill Clinton.
Estevez said the film, called The Way, was in final editing, and showed Rolando a clip. Perhaps, Estevez suggested, they could do some kind of joint venture for its release in the United States. That’s how Carolina and Luis found themselves last October in a crowd of celebrities at the School of Visual Arts Theater in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. Bill Clinton, who had already appeared in a video endorsing Walkabout, spoke at the event. Daughter Chelsea attended, as did Ivanka Trump, Donna Karan and Wyclef Jean. It was a publicist’s dream. And Walkabout raised $400,000.
As word spreads about the foundation, support continues to grow. Carolina and Luis were particularly happy to have Duncan Edwards, headmaster at Brunswick during Luis’s years there, join the group’s board last year. Wheelchair donations, meanwhile, which numbered 1,500 by the end of last year, are scheduled deep into 2012. Fundraising “walkabouts” are planned for New York, London and Uruguay. Efforts are also under way to get schools around the country involved in raising money. On the research side, projects in Miami and Israel are showing promise. And the siblings want to raise more money for UCLA’s studies.
It was Carolina who pointed out how things fall into place and start weaving together. Perhaps, then, she has noticed that of all the people to benefit from Walkabout Foundation, she and her brother may be the ones enjoying the greatest rewards. Take Luis, who no longer feels a nagging sense of something important left undone, who now gets up in the morning with a greater sense of purpose. “To not just be on the sidelines, but to be influencing the course of history, and the lives of so many people, it’s a powerful feeling,” he says. “You’re actually making a difference.”
And then there’s Carolina, who quit what many would consider a dream job during an economic tsunami to start, of all things, a charity. “I love what I do,” she explains. “I love working with my brother. I love putting it all together and trying to make a difference in people’s lives. And I definitely don’t look back.”
Visit walkaboutfoundation.org to find out how you can help make a difference.