Before Kevan Chandler was even born, his parents knew that he would likely suffer from major health issues. That’s because his sister Connie, who is three years older than him, was born with a neuromuscular disease called Spinal Muscular Atrophy, which impeded the growth of her arms and legs and weakened her muscles in general.
Doctors told the Chandlers, “If you have more children, it will probably be the same case again.”
The couple looked at their good-natured, joyful daughter and responded, “If the worst that can happen is that we have another child like Connie, that’s okay with us.”
Needless to say, Mr. and Mrs. Chandler – an airplane mechanic and the director of a crisis pregnancy center, respectively – soon welcomed Kevan into the world. As doctors predicted, he also had Spinal Muscular Atrophy and eventually wound up in a wheelchair. But his parents focused more on building on his strengths than dwelling on his weaknesses, filling him with a “can do” spirit as he grew into adulthood.
The Chandlers’ positive attitude stemmed from their Christian faith. During a “Christopher Closeup” interview about his memoir “We Carry Kevan: Six Friends, Three Countries, No Wheelchair,” Kevan explained, “Their pro-life approach to life is certainly derived from their relationship with the Lord – and then my own as I grew to understand Jesus and His love for me, the story of His salvation and how that applies to me. In Romans, it talks about our adoption as sons and daughters of God being the redemption of our bodies. That’s how Paul puts it. So no matter what’s going on with my body as it continues to decline…what really matters is what’s going on in my heart and in my mind and my relationship with the Lord. He is where my hope has been found, and He’s the one that keeps me going.”
As the title of his book suggests, Kevan also has friends that keep him going, friends who serve as the arms and legs of Jesus in his life. The group decided it would be both fun and educational to take a trip through Europe together. Kevan especially had always wanted to visit there because of his interest in music, literature, his family history, and Christian history. Yet the difficulties of finding wheelchair accessibility everywhere had kept him grounded in the U.S.
This time, however, Kevan’s friends got creative. They designed a special backpack in which they could carry him wherever they went. And it worked beautifully.
They explored Sacre-Coeur Basilica in Paris, a Django Reinhardt fan gathering along the Seine River, the legacy of “Peter Pan” author J.M. Barrie in England, and the island of Skellig Michael off the coast of Ireland, which Kevan described as “beautiful but intense.”
The trip to Skelling Michael occurred after the island had gained fame for appearing in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” as the planet Ahch-To. Kevan explained, “We made plans to go to the island because of its historical context. There is a monastery from the sixth century at the top…It’s not your traditional fortress monastery, but a bunch of stone huts, which they used in the movie. But we made the plan to go, and then we found out it was going to show up in the movie…Sure enough, [when we got there], people were walking around with lightsabers and action figures and stuff.”
Kevan continued, “It was interesting to have that dichotomy of this handful of guys that were going for the spiritual aspects of celebrating the history of this monastery that was set up when the Christians were being chased out of Ireland. And instead of completely running away and going to another country, a handful commits to this island that they found. [They] built these huts at the top, and committed their lives to praying for the mainland, which they could still see on a clear day. [It was about] realizing what’s really important in life and committing your life to the Lord in that way. So it was amazing to be part of that for an afternoon, and to make that hike with so many other people, whatever their reasons for being there may have been, but to be part of that community. It was great.”
Community was at the heart of the trip these six friends took through Europe, so naturally it’s at the heart of the memoir “We Carry Kevan.” But Kevan is working to expand experiences of community for others with disabilities through a nonprofit he created, also called We Carry Kevan.
He said they aim to “redefine accessibility as a cooperative effort, which means people helping people. As great as ramps and elevators and automatic doors may be, those were started by people who wanted to help people. We’re looking for [new] ways to make the world more accessible.”
The influence of Kevan’s journey has already spread to other countries. After their European trip, Kevan traveled to China, and visited Maria’s Big House of Hope, a care center for orphans with special needs. He noted that he and his friends had developed their special backpack just for fun.
“Two years later,” he said, “we’re sitting in that care center in China watching children with disabilities using the backpack, seeing how the nurses and nannies and caregivers use that as a tool to further what they’re already doing, which is saying, ‘Hey, we love you, and we care about you. You matter to us.’ And so, seeing the backpack, not as the answer, but as a a tool to further what they’re doing and be a part of that process, it was humbling and also encouraging. It’s become so much bigger than just us.”
(To listen to my full interview with Kevan Chandler, click on the podcast link):