Hunter Gandee, 15, used to carry his little brother Braden around because it was convenient. Now, he knows it can be a powerful tool to raise awareness, too.
With 8-year-old Braden strapped to his back, Hunter on Sunday completed a 57-mile walk across southern Michigan. The teen planned the trek, the Cerebral Palsy Swagger, to bring greater recognition to people such as Braden who are afflicted with cerebral palsy, a debilitating brain disorder.
“I’ve seen what my brother has to do and struggle with in everyday life,” Hunter said. “Walking is his biggest struggle, and we wanted to show people that.”
Cerebral palsy is a nonprogressive brain disorder that impairs muscle coordination. It appears in infancy or early in childhood and damages brain tissue that controls movement.
Friends and family joined Hunter for the three-day journey, which was well-documented on Facebook and Instagram. People lined the route to shout encouragement. Police and fire departments safely escorted the group through towns. At no point were there less than 15 people by his side, Hunter said.
“We had never planned for it to be this big,” he said. “At first, I just wanted to get my friends involved.”
The trek began Friday at Braden’s school in Lambertville, where the entire student body — all 550 students — at Douglas Road Elementary took the initial steps beside Hunter and Braden.
“It was exhilarating for our students,” said school principal Carol Perz. “They wanted to be part of it.” The event gave students a chance to learn more about disabilities and support a peer, she said.
The journey ended at the University of Michigan Pediatric Rehabilitation Center in Ann Arbor, where Braden has a surgery scheduled for June 26. When the group reached their destination, Hunter and Braden broke the tape at the finish line and celebrated with their supporters.
Hunter said he was filled with intense feelings of relief, as well as thankfulness for those who walked with him and cheered as he passed.
“The recognition shows that people see what we’re doing and they’re believing in us,” he said.
While the walk was not a fundraiser, Hunter started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for a playground at Braden’s school that will be accessible to children with disabilities.
Hunter completed a similar, 40-mile trek with Braden last summer and got the idea to fund the playground after people wanted to donate money. He said he realized his brother would enjoy recess more if he had the proper playground equipment, such as rubber flooring and ramps.
“It provides an opportunity for all of our students to play together,” said Perz, who believes an accessible playground benefits the entire school.
She called Hunter an inspiration and credited his walks with empowering the community to dream bigger and think more inclusively.
As for Hunter, he’s still sore from carrying his 60-pound brother in a harness for three days. But he believes the miles they traveled are just the start of a larger journey toward improving Braden’s life.
“There are things that Braden struggles with, but there are things that we can do (to help),” he said. “I think it’s up to my generation to change things and make the world more accessible.”