News From Terre Haute, Indiana

June 12, 2013

Paraplegic rolls through Terre Haute on way to New York

Man traveling over 3,000 miles using standard wheelchair

Dianne Frances D. Powell
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — A paraplegic man crossing the country in his wheelchair “rolled through” Terre Haute and made a stop at Brazil Tuesday.

Gabriel Cordell, 42, decided to push himself from California to New York — a feat of over 3,000 miles — to accomplish something significant in his life before reaching the age of 45. But this endeavor is now beyond just him.

“I just wanted to inspire people … make them think about about their own lives,[and] utilizing the tools God gave them to their fullest potential,” Cordell said.

Cordell, the victim of a traffic accident, who claims to be the first one to undertake a trek of this magnitude on a “standard, everyday” wheelchair, noted that no one honked at him as he passed through Terre Haute.

“It’s hilly a little bit, there are no sidewalks, people are nice,” he added.

His stop at the YMCA of Clay County in Brazil has special significance to him. A year ago, he said he lived a lifestyle involving drugs, and he credits the YMCA of Burbank, Calif., for helping him turn his life around.

“They didn’t judge me. All they did was support me,” he said. “It (YMCA) was a safe haven for me.”

At the YMCA of Clay County parking lot, he participated in a demonstration of a new bus designed by Greencastle-based company, Dallas Smith Corp., that allows for all commuters to load and unload at the same time, including those in wheelchairs.

The platform bus also levels on unleveled ground to make it more stable, according to Smith Corp. engineer Darren Back.

Cordell approves. He spoke of the embarrassment some people might feel when commuting with wheelchairs and how they might feel that “they’re slowing everyone down” so “ for them to make it where everyone’s access is the same … it’s a huge deal emotionally.”

But the journey is only halfway done for Cordell, and he is not alone.

An eight-person crew of the documentary, “Roll with Me,” in which Cordell stars,  records his every move. Producer Christian Ijin Link chose a route that took them through U.S. 40, which he calls “a fairly decent road.”

Although it added 300 miles to the trip, Link said the primary factors he used in choosing the route were safety, speed and elevation change.

“It’s great for us to be able to see smaller cities,” Link said.

For Link, the documentary is an “opportunity to do something that would help generations to come.”

“I’ve come to learn that this will touch people and inspire people,” he added.

Cordell said his trip has been physically, emotionally and mentally challenging. But he is no stranger to challenge.

Born in a Libyan refugee camp with the name Suheil Aghabi, he immigrated to the United States with his family when he was 5 years old. His ambition is to become an actor, using Gabriel Cordell as a stage name.

And he is on his way to reaching his dream ... and New York. He initially sought to arrive in time for his 25th high school reunion in West Hempstead, N.Y., this weekend but he revealed Tuesday that he is not going to make it.

“My original goal was too ambitious: 75 days,” he said.

“I’m not worried about it,” adding that he can communicate with his classmates online.

“The overall goal is to get to New York safely,” he said.

He may be attempting to inspire people but the people he meets inspire him just the same.

“It’s been confirmed that the people in this country are generous. ... [They] want to see you succeed.”

And what he has witnessed so far, he said, “reconfirms my faith in humanity.”



Tribune-Star Reporter Dianne Frances D. Powell can be reached at 812-231-4299 or dianne.powell@tribstar.com