Teen carries brother on 40-mile Cerebral Palsy awareness walk

(Freep.com) -- As he walked toward Jackman Road with his brother in a harness on his back, Hunter Gandee asked 7-year-old Braden if he was ready to walk 40 miles.

Braden said he was, and a long line of friends and supporters followed the pair for at least the beginning of the Gandee brothers' Cerebral Palsy Swagger walk as the sun shone on a blue-sky morning in Temperance. Hunter, a 14-year-old eighth-grade wrestler, is trying to raise awareness about cerebral palsy, the congenital condition that keeps his brother from walking without assistance.

Before they struck out this morning, the pair spoke at a rally inside the Bedford Junior High School gymnasium that was brimming with hundreds of enthusiastic supporters. Those in the crowd wore green wristbands promoting cerebral palsy awareness and shirts with the looping green Cerebral Palsy Swagger ribbon logo. Signs on the walls encouraged success -- "You can do it Hunter and Braden."

As he stood with his family on a platform, Hunter thanked the crowd gathered in the bleachers, which included a pep band, and said he never thought the effort would generate so much interest.

"It really just brings me to a loss of words. I can't explain to you guys how much this means to us," Hunter said. "When we're going through struggles during this walk and things get hard, it just really helps the support we're getting. It's going to push us through."

Braden echoed his brother.

"Thank you guys for coming out. Thank you for your support. It means so much to us," he said as his brother held the microphone for him.

As they left the cheering crowd to prepare for their walk, Hunter and Braden gathered with family in a separate room. Braden was placed in a black homemade harness on a table as Hunter lay back so it could be attached tight enough to stay in place but not too restrictive for Braden's legs.

When Hunter and Braden walked outside, the crowd had reformed in a gauntlet, cheering and releasing scores of green balloons as they passed. Hunter looked straight ahead as he crossed onto the street followed by many who aimed to walk at least part of the way.

Adam Knaggs, 29, of Bedford, carrying his own 3-year-old nephew, Keagan Downour, said he and his friend, Tracy Godfrey, 43, of Sylvania, Ohio, who was beside him, intended to walk 3 ½ miles to show their support.

"I think it's awesome. I'd try to do the same thing if I was in the same boat," Knaggs said. "It'd be a challenge, but I'd be up for it."

Jennifer VanEeckhoutte, 37, of Temperance walked a short distance with her son, Evan VanEeckhoutte, 13 and her mother, Debbie Lajiness, 56. Jennifer VanEeckhoutte said she was there because her daughter, 7-year-old Raegan VanEeckhoutte, was staying with other family members and could not come.

"I came for her, to support her," Jennifer VanEeckhoutte said, noting that Raegan had befriended Braden when other children in school were not so interested in doing so. "I hope they get the awareness they're looking for."

Hunter's vision for the Cerebral Palsy Swagger is about creating awareness that eventually improves life for those with cerebral palsy. He has said he wants to compel researchers to develop technology that assists with mobility. Hunter said Braden, who does well in school, is there to cheer Hunter on during his matches but struggles to do basic daily tasks that many of us take for granted and he must use a walker for balance.

The Swagger, which is scheduled to end at 2 p.m. Sunday at the University of Michigan's Bahna Wrestling Center, struck a special note for Nick Hyndman who pushed a walker with wheels along the walk route. Hyndman, 20, of Perrysburg, Ohio, is a student at the University of Toledo in business and disability studies who also has cerebral palsy.

He and his father, Greg Hyndman, 46, walked with the crowd past several houses before turning back. It was "as far as I could go," Nick said, sounding a slight note of disappointment. But his father assured him that was OK.

They had come to show their support, after all. And Nick Hyndman has things in common with both brothers. Not only does he have cerebral palsy, but he also wrestled when he was in high school.

"Everybody's got their disabilities as they say. Theirs is (just) a little more apparent, I guess," Greg Hyndman said.

Staff writer Robin Erb contributed to this report.


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