Marcos Castillo thinks walking is overrated.
The Chandler man hasn’t been on his feet since September 2001, when he sustained spinal injuries in a car accident and lost mobility in his arms and legs.
But while Castillo may be confined to a wheelchair, he’s determined to not let his disability keep him from getting behind the wheel again.
After five years of planning and fundraising, Castillo has purchased a van that’s equipped with special features that allow him to drive around town on his own.
It will be a liberating milestone for the 36-year-old: not only will he gain some newfound independence, but he wants to use this vehicle to enhance his advocacy work.
“I have to prove that I’m gonna do something with this. Its not just gonna be a vanity thing,” Castillo said.
The journey started with Castillo just wanting to be a better father—someone who could drive the kids around without his disability getting in the way.
His girlfriend, Mina Lopez, had been the family’s driver for so many years and Castillo wanted to contribute more to the household responsibilities.
But as time went on, he began to realize how a car could enrich not only his life, but the lives of others in the community.
Castillo said it can be difficult to explain his advocacy work, but he describes himself as a “bridge builder”—someone who can connect people together.
His work involves having small conversations, changing a person’s perspective, and helping other people with disabilities locate resources that can oftentimes be difficult to find.
“There (were) a lot of things in the community that weren’t being addressed because there was nobody to speak up for those people,” he said.
A car could make this work much easier to accomplish.
Accident changed his life
The world looked like very different place before Castillo’s accident.
Mark Zuckerberg hadn’t invented Facebook yet, cellphones didn’t have touch screens and music had to be listened to on CDs.
It was Sept. 9, 2001—two days before the world would be turned upside down by terrorist attacks in New York City.
But Castillo’s world would be turned upside down too. And it would take him several months of recovery before he could turn it back around.
Castillo was just an 18-year-old high school student getting ready to start the next chapter in his life.
He was living with his family in Yuma and dreamed of pursuing a career in the culinary arts. His goals were very similar to others his own age; make a good living and take care of his family.
Castillo was busy trying to finish school, work full time and maintain the social schedule of any regular teenager. But all the demands eventually caught up with him.
“I thought I could do everything,” Castillo said.
As he was driving home early one morning from a party, Castillo said he started to feel drowsy and then suddenly crashed his car into a wall.
Paramedics flew the teenager to Phoenix, where he’d undergo extensive treatment for his spinal injuries.
Holes were drilled into his skull to install a halo that could stabilize his spine. But much of the damage was already done.
Castillo was paralyzed and there wasn’t much hope for a full recovery.
His injuries are classified as ranging between C4 and C7, which in the medical world means he has some mobility in his arms and can breathe one his own without a ventilator.
Castillo eventually went back to Yuma and tried adjusting to life in a wheelchair.
He doesn’t remember growing up around people with disabilities, so the idea he now belonged to this community was completely foreign to him.
The people with disabilities at his school were basically shunned, Castillo recalled, and no one interacted with them. Now Castillo had to accept that he was one of these people.
“I also felt alienated because we alienated them,” Castillo said.
His parents supported Castillo the best they could, but they encouraged him to regain his independence. It can be easy to coddle someone with a disability, he said, so he was determined to not have his identity be dominated by his wheelchair.
“I minimize my disability to an extent without diminishing what it actually means,” he said.
He knew he would have to get out of Yuma. He feared the small town might dig its claws into Castillo and never let him leave.
He set his sights up north in the Valley, where it seemed like more opportunities were available for the disabled community.
Becoming ‘Mr. Mom’
Despite his physical setbacks, Castillo adopted the “Mr. Mom” role in his household.
His longtime girlfriend, Mina Lopez, would serve as the breadwinner and Castillo would help raise her three kids.
He’d make sure the kids got on the school bus, attend parent-teacher conferences, and do all the other daily tasks that encompass modern parenting.
Castillo said the family has its fair share of challenges, like any other family, but they’ve discovered some semblance of normalcy that feels comfortable to them.
Yet, Castillo’s disability can’t be completely ignored, especially when it comes to transportation. If he wants to leave the house, he has to spend hours preparing for anything that might go wrong. And if his girlfriend can’t drive him, he has to navigate the complexities of public transportation.
He compared this lifestyle to a game of chess—Castillo must always have a contingency plan in place for when a crisis strikes.
“Everything that I do in my life, I have to think at least three steps ahead,” he said.
He didn’t think driving would be in his future, but he realized how much more he could get done if he had his own set of wheels.
Castillo began researching the government programs that could assist him in buying a car. An evaluator assessed Castillo’s abilities and wrote a prescription on what modifications he would need to drive a vehicle.
The Arizona Department of Economic Security approved spending a large chunk of money for the modifications, but Castillo would still be on the hook for about $40,000.
So, he took to social media to get his story out and started collecting donations.
As the years went by, money would trickle in and Castillo had some more hurdles to overcome.
He was recently diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease that affects his nerves. The new illness was a setback, but he refused to let it stop him from reaching his goal.
By the end of July, his GoFundMe.com page had accumulated about $15,000 and it was time to start signing paperwork for the van.
If they don’t raise enough in donations, Castillo said his father is trying to improve his credit enough to qualify for a loan.
There are several people invested in this vehicle, he said, so he has to make it worth the time and effort.
On the road again
Chip Stoecker has helped several people with disabilities get back behind the wheel.
He works for United Access, a company based in Chandler that installs technology on vehicles for drivers with different needs.
Depending on the type of disability a client has, United Access finds the right features that can adapt to the driver’s capabilities. The vehicles typically come equipped with joystick-shaped control devices that manipulate steering and breaking.
Stoecker said Castillo’s been maneuvering a similar device to operate his wheelchair for several years, so it should be an easy transition to the vehicle’s controls.
“It will be second nature to him,” Stoecker said.
Stoecker’s known Castillo since he started the process to buy the van four years ago. Castillo is one of his most inspirational clients, Stoecker said, and he’s confident Castillo will perform well out on the road.
“Disabled drivers concentrate on their driving more than we do,” Stoecker said. “They’re cognitive of what they’re doing all the time.”
United Access will begin equipping Castillo’s car over the next few weeks and Stoecker’s scheduled for it to be ready by Sept. 9, exactly 18 years after Castillo’s accident. A party has been arranged to celebrate the momentous occasion.
Even though a vehicle caused Castillo’s condition, he said he’s not nervous about operating a car again. If anything, he’s excited to get out and do more good in the world.
“I want to leave this world with my footprint and I want my footprint to be a good one,” Castillo said.