A Quadriplegic, a Specialty Van and a Lifetime of Adventures

A Quadriplegic, a Specialty Van and a Lifetime of Adventures

Kirk Williams loved riding mountain bikes and "loved to play on anything with an engine," he said.

Katie Renker, a photographer and musician, chained herself to large pink boats during climate protests and sang songs with refugee choirs.

Mr. Williams graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder with a degree in Sociology in 2009. “Even though I knew after spending a semester abroad in Ghana, Africa, my career path would be towards travel, photography and storytelling,” he said.

Four months later, he fell while on a routine mountain bike tour and broke his neck. He was paraplegic, had no movement under his upper chest, and had limited feeling in his arms and hands.

Ms. Renker's life was derailed a little over 14 months ago. She "beautifully exploded my C7 vortex by diving into a lake at midnight that turned out to be pretty shallow during a failed Tinder date," she said. She was paralyzed from the collarbone down.

Mr. Williams has never lost his spirit of adventure and has traveled a lot in a specially equipped van – and has inspired people like Ms. Renker with whom he communicated via Instagram. He went on a hike to Alaska in 2015 and has just returned from a trip to Argentina in his 2017 Ford Transit Van.

"The middle roof has a great height," he said, adding that it was "barely short enough to fit in a high cube container for international shipping."

Loren Worthington, vice president of marketing and communications for Ability360, an Arizona nonprofit group that supports people with disabilities, told Mr. Williams Brain what worked and what didn't in his accessible van. Mr. Worthington, who was injured in baseball 36 years ago, also drives a four-wheel drive accessible van.

Mr. Williams' willingness to share private details about street life with a disability sets him apart, Mr. Worthington said.

"Other people with disabilities often don't even believe that it is possible to travel until they meet someone like Kirk, who is an open book," he added.

The details are complex, but the cost is daunting. "The biggest hurdle with accessible vehicles," said Williams, "is often the huge cost of modifying them to work for you." Building accessible vans with mobility devices can start at $ 30,000. However, programs or grants can help offset the cost.

For his retrofit project, Mr. Williams qualified for a program in the Colorado Division of Vocational Rehabilitation.

"Not all states have such well-funded programs, and not all people qualify for them," he said. "The process is slow, tedious, and took almost a year and a half." Although he received help for 75 percent of the project, he bought the van himself.

At this point, he contacted Leland Gilmore, a rider with Benchmark Vehicles in Portland, Oregon. The company now specializes in high-end vans, but was originally a furniture and furniture company.

Mr. Gilmore "was just about to get into the van game," said Mr. Williams. They "hit it off immediately," he said.

Mr. Gilmore added, "When I came on board with the story and its mission, I was really motivated to do so."

Before starting, Mr. Williams simulated layouts using coffee tables and painter's tape. He measured how high he could go to bed, what angles he needed, how high his knees were, and how high the counters were.

While the changes to help Mr. Williams drive the van and get in and out of his wheelchair were made by a licensed mobility specialist, the interior was completed by Benchmark Vehicles. As a result, Mr. Williams' van is more comfortable for him than hotel rooms certified under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

This "apartment on wheels" uses only electrical amenities. "It would be difficult for me to fill up a propane tank, and I don't like being on open flames," said Mr. Williams. "I have no temperature sensation in about 80 percent of my body," he added, "and a fire in a wooden van scares me." Mr. Williams no longer sweats or shivers, "so I need to make sure I can stay warm and cool appropriately".

He is proud of the large counter and storage space in the van. "It's really difficult for me to bend over and do something without core muscle function," he said. Pull-out counters and drawers with adaptive chef's knives and can openers make work easier. Wide aisles for his wheelchair mean more maneuverability. Including suitable heights and clearances was crucial.

The van has an induction stove, a 12-volt refrigerator, a sink, heating, insulation, operable windows, a bed and other amenities.

After his accident, Mr. Williams learned to live independently. "This led me to starting my own drone photography business," he said, providing photos and videos for everything from construction projects to films. He added that he was one of the few Federal Aviation Administration certified paraplegic drone pilots.

He has driven the van over 45,000 miles to date, driving from Key West to Seattle to Cabo San Lucas in Mexico and from Santiago in Chile to Ushuaia in Argentina.

All of these miles take their toll. "I had problems with my elevator, electric door, and electric seat," said Williams. "Everything but the hand controls." Accessible equipment is not suitable for harsh environments, and not every mechanic can repair the equipment either.

After all his experience, Mr. Williams is committed to giving back, and he has partnered with the nonprofit Walkabout Foundation, which provides wheelchairs in developing countries and teaches about adapting vehicles for accessibility. For just over $ 300, Walkabout can ship a wheelchair anywhere in the world. Mr. Williams' goal is to raise $ 15,000 for shipping an entire container of wheelchairs to Latin America.

He also gives lectures in hospitals as a peer mentor and teaches patients about adaptive overlanding or life in delivery trucks.

"Kirk is a yaysayer, not a naysayer," said Topher Downham, an outreach coordinator for the city of Boulder's open space and mountain parks. Mr. Downham is also quadriplegic, and he and Mr. Williams have become good friends.

They have traveled together on multiple adventures, such as scuba diving in Cozumel and 4WD mountain biking the steep trails around Boulder. "There are many good people around the world who can help you in a pinch," Downham said.

Mr. Williams realized that people with and without physical obstacles were curious about vehicle customization. His goal is to create a website with information about his van and networking opportunities.

His wheelchair breaks down prejudice, he said. "People are generally excited and ready to help me in any way they can," he said. "When I take the elevator out of the van, everyone seems to stop what they're doing to watch me." He is used to it and knows that people are excited to see what is possible with a disability.

The coronavirus had kept Mr. Williams in Buenos Aires for four months. But he was fortunate to have his brother Clayton with him. You recently returned to the United States to continue helping others.

His Instagram acquaintance, Ms. Renker, plans to move to Edinburgh to begin her transformative teaching and learning studies. After speaking to Mr. Williams, she is inspired. Her dream is to build an accessible sailboat and return to her parents' home in Sri Lanka.

“I wanted to change the world. And I will, ”she said.

Ms. Renker admitted that things aren't always easy, but it helps to have people like Mr. Williams to help her.

"Adventure, freedom and independence were everything to me," she said, looking at him. "So, keep living like you so I know I can too."


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