“My whole life has been about finding a balance between what I can physically do and what I want to do,” Kevan Chandler tells PEOPLE.
The 30-year-old Fort Wayne, Indiana, man was born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy – a genetic disorder that causes progressive muscle weakness. Still, Chandler says he was raised to dream big and see his physical limitations as just one part of who he is.
In June, Chandler made one of his greatest dreams come true as he and three friends took off for a three-week backpacking trip around Europe. It was a trip the group had spent months preparing for, with Chandler’s three friends all training to build up the strength needed to carry 65-pound Chandler around three countries in a specially designed backpack.
Chandler, too, had been preparing to temporarily give up the independence his motorized wheelchair has afforded him for decades.
“My wheelchair is definitely where I am most comfortable,” he says. “But I realized that sometimes breaking out of your comfort zone is worth it.”
Chandler says that while he has always dreamed of backpacking through Europe, but didn’t think it was possible until he joined some friends on an unusual adventure in Greensboro, North Carolina.
One night in 2013, a few of Chandler’s friends hatched a plan to explore the city’s sewers. As sewers are not known for wheelchair-accessibility, the friends threw together a makeshift backpack and carried Chandler underground.
“After we survived that, we started wondering, what else we could do on a bigger scale?” he says.
The answer was Europe – the continent Chandler had spent his life reading about in books by his favorite authors J. M. Barrie, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.
“It’s just a magical place and I always had the desire to be there, I just never knew how to make it possible,” he says.
So, Chandler set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for the once in a lifetime trip that includes stops in England, Ireland and France.
“The group consists of teachers, musicians, photographers, and writers,” Chandler wrote on the fundraising page. “We have little money of our own, but with your support, we will return with a story to share unlike the world has ever heard before.”
His plea was successful. In four months, the page raised $33,000 – enough to cover airfare, accommodations, meals, and a stipend for the friends who have volunteered to spend three weeks carrying Chandler so that he can live his dream.
The page has generated more than just financial support. Chandler says he has been overwhelmed by the messages he’s received from people around the world.
“People have been writing to us saying, ‘I’m disabled and this is really encouraging me to look at life a little differently,’ ” he says.
While he’s happy to serve as an inspiration to others, there’s one person in particular that Chandler says has inspired him: his sister, Connie. Like her brother, Connie was born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy.
“SMA is a progressive disease so we’ve both gotten weaker as time has passed. That would be a very difficult thing to go through alone but to have a sibling going through it right beside you…it changes everything to have that support,” Chandler says.
“She’s my hero,” he continues. “She’s my biggest supporter and I’ve seen her go on so many adventures so she has proven a big inspiration for this trip.”
After the trip, Chandler plans to write a book about his experience in the hopes that it will inspire other people with disabilities to find a way to live their dreams.
“I think we’re all broken and disabled in some way it’s just less obvious for some people,” he says. “So the idea that we have to be limited by our disabilities just really doesn’t make sense to me. My message to people with extreme disabilities is if you have something you want to do, you can find a way to do it.”
You can learn more about Kevan and his friends’ trip here.