Dan Eley, a 36-year-old Guildford, England native, returned once again to Colombia this summer, after an accident near Leticia, Amazonas, left him paralyzed from the neck down in January 2010. He came to expand the network of the Dan Eley Foundation (DEF), a non-government organization dedicated to helping underprivileged youth in Cali get a head start with technical training courses.
After grueling physical therapy, Dan managed to talk to The City Paper in his comfortable Bogotá hotel room, as a care assistant prepared dinner in the open kitchenette. A motorized wheelchair always make long haul travel extremely difficult, but with his good looks and disarming smile, it’s easy to imagine Dan before the accident, as a charming, adventurous young man wandering through Latin America. “Life can be very not fun,” Dan mentions, looking exhausted but upbeat. “It can be very fulfilling as well, and that is where I am right now.”
Dan was born to good, kind, English folk who liked to travel, often thanks to the assignments of an intrepid journalist mother, Carolyn. He graduated from the University of Greenwich with a degree in psychology, but never wanted to work as a clinical psychologist. “I just felt really disillusioned with the rat race,” says Dan describing his first post-college job with the London Underground. “It wore me down and I was depressed, so at 25 I left it and went to Spain.”
Teaching English to Madrid businessmen was a revelation for Dan, and he was praised for his ability as an instructor. Still, he felt a nagging desire to “do something more– something humanitarian.”
That desire led him to backpack through South America. Starting his journey in Ecuador, Dan was deeply affected by his time traveling through humble Andean villages. “I saw for the first time people living such simple lives, but with such joy. I met people with materially nothing, but very open and generous people,” he recounts. “I was euphoric and absolutely astounded.”
Eventually arriving in La Paz, Bolivia, Dan began to feel a sense of guilt for traveling and spending money in a country where so many lived in extreme poverty. On one occasion, he remembered buying food for street children in the Bolivian capital. “I just sat and watched them eat and, after that, I had a compulsion to work in Latin America and to work with street kids,” he said.
The backpacking trip eventually ended, but Eley’s passion for Latin America followed him back to England, where he researched opportunities to work with NGOs. He settled on Casa Alianza, an organization working with at-risk youth in Central America.
Choosing his base in Guatemala City, Eley was assigned to a street intervention team attempting to form relationships with street kids and break down their distrust and fear. The experience gave Dan a hands-on introduction to the world of international NGOs and set the direction for his future.
Taking a break from the rewarding but intense work, Eley traveled to Cartagena, recalling that Colombia always seemed to come up in conversations with fellow travelers as a beautiful and inviting destination. From there, he “couch surfed” his way to Cali. Passing through the sultry Pacific city left a profound impression on Dan. “The urban poverty right in the city center really impacted me,” he says. “I hadn’t really witnessed that kind of poverty outside of Guatemala.”
He soon returned to Cali and started teaching English at a private school, but his passion for charity work began giving way to a complacent expatriate lifestyle. “I spent most of my time learning salsa and enjoying life, but getting a little distracted,” Daniel remembers. “I was just slipping into being a ‘gringo in Cali.’”
To escape the rut, Eley decided to take a New Year’s trip to the Amazon. After enjoying street carnivals and holiday festivities, he left Leticia with a small group to spend time in the jungle. They stopped along the road to take a dip in a pond.
Plunging into a lagoon changed Dan’s life forever.
“Next thing I know, I’m looking at the sky and a guy told me an ambulance was on its way. I wasn’t in pain, but I knew I had broken my neck,” recalls Daniel.
While such a realization would send most people into a panic, Dan remained calm. His mother has also once broken her neck while traveling, but made a complete recovery.
Conscious and cogent, Daniel called his mother from the hospital in Leticia and began to arrange transport to better-equipped facilities in Bogotá. The process was slow and his condition worsened until, on the last night in the Amazon, he came down with pneumonia. Alone in a hospital room, except for the comforts of an elderly nurse, he started to panic as it became harder to breath. “I could hardly speak, but I said to her: “I think I’m dying.” He continues: “I thought to myself ‘don’t shut your eyes or you’ll die.’”
Lnaguishing life and death, Dan remembers the nurse standing at the foot of his bed praying. She kept him breathing with a rusty oxygen tank until a plane arrived to transport him to Clínica El Country in Bogotá. Doctors operated immediately on arrival to treat infected sores that would likely have killed him had he remained in Leticia.
The worst was hardly over. Dan suffered three heart attacks in the following days. After the second, he signed a “Do not resuscitate” order. “I had some very disturbing near death experiences. The first time I was terrified,” Dan recalls of his first heart attack, which left him apparently dead before doctors were able to revive him. “But by the third heart attack, when my heart started beating again on its own, I felt completely calm for the first time since the accident.”
Dan considers himself a spiritual person but hesitates to attribute religious significance to his brushes with death. “I do believe everything happens for a reason,” adding that this terrible experience reignited his passion for people. “I started telling everyone what I’d been through as soon as I could speak again,” remembers Eley, who quickly became the Clinic’s much-admired patient. “I look back on those two months in Bogotá as one of the happiest times in my life.”
“I was probably drugged though, to be fair,” he adds with a typical English humour.
His presence at the hospital was clearly a memorable one. Almost two years after leaving to have special treatment in England, Dan’s dropped in on El Country where he was showered with hugs and smiles as doctors and nurses gathered by his side to congratulate him on his progress. But Dan didn’t travel 9,000 miles to to catch up with his trauma doctors.
His focus was to set up the Dan Eley Foundation in Cali with the help of the Fundación Educación Para Todos (FEDUT), to provide practical education to kids with little or no access to quality schooling.
FEDUT provides children and young adults with basic education in addition to encouraging participants to develop “life projects.” Eley envisions a similar system for his foundation, providing hands-on job training in growing career fields like accounting or micro-business. Another possible project involves intensive pre-K programs.
Support for his project sometimes overwhelms Dan, who again flirts with spirituality when describing the ease of creating the Foundation. “The process of starting the organization has been so easy that I can’t help but think there must be some sort of divine influence.”
Dan’s story has been so widely praised in the media for his courage and determination, that in 2012, he was asked to hold the Olympic flame as it arrived in Godalming, Surrey, on its way to London 2012 Olympic opening. He is involved with many spine-injury related charities, and has become a global spokesman for raising funds through scientific organizations working with paralysis.
There’s no doubt that the past three years have been incredibly difficult for Dan, but in this summer he took the leap of faith in Colombia yet again, returning to Cali, to meet the students who successfully graduated from the Theoretical Phase of the course to their Practical Work Experience phase. Dan Eley and Colombia director of DEF, Jorge Tchira (and partner charity FEDUT) managed to break away from their technical and administrative duties to head to the Colombian Caribbean town of Santa Marta. as take in some sand and sea. As Dan writes in his blog: “Such is the kindness of the people in Colombia that I never encountered anyone unwilling to help me, the large majority of wouldn’t accept a tip. Indeed it seems that just seeing someone in a wheelchair brings out the best in people in most countries and cultures, although admittedly it is an extreme length to go to.”
Being so connected to Colombia and his students has changed Dan’s existence in profound ways. He remains incredibly upbeat and sure of his life’s direction. “I just follow where it takes me.”
If you would like to get involved or make a charitable donation, contact: www.daneleyfoundation.org