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Q&A: Carolina Gonzalez-Bunster

Faced with a family challenge, one young woman creates a group to fight for the paralyzed

Photo By Billy Farrell/BFANCYC/SIPA USA/Newscom

Georgetown and London School of Economics alum Carolina Gonzalez-Bunster, 30, quit her job at Goldman Sachs to cofound the Walkabout Foundation, which fights for victims of spinal cord injury.

Q: How did you get the idea for the Walkabout Foundation?

While working as a financial analyst at Goldman in Dubai in 2008, I visited my family in Greenwich, Conn. My eldest brother, Luis, who was paralyzed from the chest down in a car accident, was training for the New York Marathon, which he would do on a hand-cycle. He was swimming up to 140 laps a day in our outdoor pool. I suggested he try the town’s new indoor $40 million YMCA aquatic center— but I was blown away to discover it had neither a ramp nor an elevator. Their excuse: a lack of funding. Something had to be done.

You had no nonprofit experience. How did you prepare?

I wanted to start a nonprofit for disability rights, but also to fund research to find a cure. So I quit my banking job and enrolled in the Saïd Business School at Oxford, which has a social entrepreneurship MBA.

How did you and Luis launch the foundation?

We thought the best way would be with a long, challenging walk—he would be on his hand-cycle—and people could sponsor us. We discovered a historic trail from Spain into France, the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. We raised over $250,000 and Luis became the first person ever to cross Spain using only the strength of his arms.

What was your first major project?

I visited Haiti six days after the 2010 earthquake to see what could be done. People all around me said I could help by bringing wheelchairs, because thousands and thousands of people lost limbs or were paralyzed because a roof fell on them.

Your wheelchairs are different than most, right?

I put a video of our Haiti trip on YouTube that got half a million views within a week. A viewer named Ralf Hotchkiss contacted us—he had designed a wheelchair, the RoughRider, for the developing world. It is made entirely of bicycle parts, making access to replacement parts easier in remote areas. It also has mountain-bike, all terrain wheels and a longer wheelbase that keeps it from easily tipping forward or backward.

What does a RoughRider cost?

Three hundred dollars, which includes everything—ordering, delivery, fitting and a training program that teaches local therapists how to build, maintain and fit the chairs.

You run a program called Adopt a Scientist. What is that?

We fund a number of scientists working on projects to find a cure, and our donors can give to help fund their research. In return, the scientist will send them updates from the lab—progress reports, photos, tweets, direct messages—so the donors feel like they’re part of the scientist’s work and know where their money is going.

Any research breakthroughs?

Yes! We help fund the lab of a doctor at UCLA, Reggie Edgerton, with the Christopher Reeve Foundation, with which we work very closely. Implanting an electrode device next to the spine, in combination with intense physical training and drugs, has enabled one patient not only to stand up and bear his own weight, but also to regain his bladder and bowel control and sexual function. It’s a huge step forward.

What’s next for Walkabout?

One hundred million people in the world need a wheelchair and can’t afford one. Our hope is to help meet that demand and be at the forefront of the drive toward a cure.

For more information, contact Carolina Gonzalez-Bunster, carolina@walkaboutfoundation.org, 203.629.5290, walkaboutfoundation.org.

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