It’s been more than 20 years since Suheil Aghabi was paralyzed in a car accident only blocks from his West Hempstead home. The 42-year-old actor, known professionally as Gabriel Cordell, now lives in California but plans to come home this June by pushing his wheelchair 3,300 miles across the country.
Aghabi will leave Burbank on April 1 and roll his chair through 15 states, finishing on June 10 at his alma mater, West Hempstead High School. The 1988 graduate’s goal is to complete the trip within 70 days.
“I don’t know if i can physically do this, but mentally, I’m ready, so I have to take the leap,” he said.
If all goes according to plan, he’ll be able to attend his 25-year high school reunion four days after his arrival. When his former classmates heard of Aghabi’s venture, they decided to move the reunion up from later this summer to June 14 to coincide with his arrival.
“It’s not like there is enough pressure,” Aghabi joked.
To prepare for this epic journey, Aghabi has been lifting weights at his local YMCA in Burbank and pushing his chair around the track at a nearby high school and up steep hills in his neighborhood, averaging 20 to 30 miles each day. The training is exhausting and painful.
“I have arthritis, so just waking up in the morning hurts,” said Aghabi, who says he refuses to take even over-the-counter pills to deal with his aches after overcoming a 3 ½-year battle with cocaine abuse last year.
“If I’m in pain, that means I’m alive,” he added. “I’ve been numb for so long that pain, to me, is life.”
Aghabi will not be making his cross-country trek alone. His “right-hand man,” 21-year-old nephew Christopher Kawas, will be joining him along with a documentary film crew that will capture it all.
“He's got a big heart and when he puts his mind to something he usually gets it done,” Kawas said of his uncle. “It's going to be a rough, rough couple of months, but I’ll be there for him, and I’ll help make sure he makes it across.”
Filmmaker Lisa France signed on to direct and produce the documentary only weeks ago after getting to know Aghabi and his parents.
“The very first time I met Gabe, he wouldn’t park in a handicap parking spot,” she recalled. “Every single person he meets, he touches them. He’s inspiring.”
Aghabi is educating people about the project and raising funds for the trip through a trailer that France created for the project, which can be viewed at rollwithme.org.
As the video spreads around the web, it’s helping to raise much-needed funds for the trip. So far, Aghabi has received more than $17,000 in donations, including a $10,000 sponsorship from Mitchell Joseph, CEO of beverage company West Coast Chill.
The contributions have been pouring in from friends, families and complete strangers, many who have stumbled upon Aghabi’s website through social media. One man from Massachusetts donated $50 in memory of Allison Wyatt, one of the students killed in the Sandy Hook shooting. Another Massachusetts resident, Sue B. Zimmerman, not only made a donation but has been providing her social media services pro bono. She’s currently in the process of designing a “Roll with Me” app so mobile users can track Aghabi’s journey from their phones.
“She is an angel,” France said. “Since she came aboard... we have received another $2,000.”
Aghabi also received a custom-built wheelchair from manufacturer Sunrise Medical, but he still needs to raise enough money to rent an RV so he and his crew have a place to sleep, shower and prepare meals. He’ll also need a follow car and money to pay for the vehicles’ fuel, equipment and food for six people for more than two months. Aghabi is planning a fundraiser in California on March 15. His friend, Mike Schultz, of Baldwin Harbor, is having another in Long Island on April 6 from 6-10 p.m. at Stinger’s Irish Pub in Rockville Centre, after Aghabi begins his trek. They need to raise roughly $200,000 for the trip.
“We’re going on the road, whether we get another penny or not,” Aghabi said. If he makes more than he needs, he plans to donate the rest to charity, adding, “I’m not looking to make a dime out of this because my life is going to be so rich afterward.”
Aghabi hopes his journey will inspire children and adults with physical disabilities, as well as struggling addicts. He wants them to see that “there are people all over the world with broken bodies, but they are productive to society because their mind is so strong … When I will myself to do something, I do it.”