Young Philanthropists: Carolina Gonzalez-Bunster

In 2009, shortly after leaving her job at Goldman Sachs, Carolina Gonzalez-Bunster established the London-based Walkabout Foundation with her brother Luis, who had been living a picture-perfect life in Greenwich prior to a devastating car accident that changed his life forever. Dedicated to bringing awareness to paralysis and disabilities around the developing world and raising funds for a cure, the organization recently opened its first Walkabout Wheelchair Assembly Centre right next to its Rehabilitation Centre in Nainyuki, Kenya, where children with disabilities receive daily therapy, education, and care. More than half of the center’s full-time employees are disabled, with four being Walkabout-provided wheelchair users themselves, serving as an example to their community while reducing the stigma attached to disability in the region. At Walkabout, disability signifies possibility, and Carolina works tirelessly to expand its presence globally.

Carolina Gonzalez-Bunster in London

Q: What inspired you to establish the Walkabout Foundation?
It all started when Luis was tragically injured in a car accident that left him with a spinal cord injury and paralyzed from the chest down. Luis’s accident left a particularly searing impression on me—there was always something in the back of my mind that did not feel right because my brother was bound to his wheelchair with recurring complications. Spinal cord injury isn’t just about being in a wheelchair—it results in loss of bladder control and bowel functions, respiratory and circulation problems, and a threat of fatal blood clots and bedsores.

In October 2008 while visiting my family in Connecticut, I saw Luis swimming laps in our outdoor pool to train for the New York Marathon, and suggested we visit the local YMCA as it had just built an Olympic-sized swimming pool. However, when we arrived, Luis couldn’t get into the building because the $30-million project had not included an access ramp or elevator. I was flabbergasted—this unfairness took over my mind, and that’s where my passion to help my brother and the millions of individuals bound to wheelchairs, truly began. I spoke to the manager, and when nobody could give me a satisfactory explanation, I called the local newspaper and the next day, Luis was front-page news. There was a public outcry. I realized then that if I could get that kind of positive response in Greenwich, I could get an even bigger response on a global scale.

Carolina Gonzalez-Bunster in Kenya

Q: What do you love most about the work you do?
Being able to change people’s lives. Even just changing one person’s life vis-à-vis a wheelchair has made all the hard work worthwhile. A wheelchair signifies mobility, and mobility in turn represents freedom and independence. It means that a little girl can go back to school, a dad can get a job and provide for his family, or a mom can go out to the market and buy food for her children. We’ve witnessed countless stories of how people’s lives have dramatically changed for the better because of a wheelchair, and those stories are priceless.

A recent benefit for the Walkabout Foundation

Q: Tell me about your team dynamic with Luis.
My brother is, hands down, no questions asked, my hero. I cannot even begin to imagine what he feels or faces daily, but I know that life is a constant struggle for him and for that I admire and respect him more than anyone else in the world. Just to move his legs off his bed in the morning is a challenge. Simple things we all take for granted, like stretching, brushing our teeth, getting dressed, are a huge physical ordeal for him each day.

Setting up Walkabout with him has been our biggest achievement, but none of what we have accomplished would be possible without the hard work and dedication of the small tight-knit team of seven women who make up our head office, and their shared passion and drive for our cause.

Carolina Gonzalez-Bunster’s TED Talk in Berlin