George Flores is making harps — again. Flores was a harp technician when he injured his spinal cord in a motorcycle crash that left him paralyzed in 2004. But that did not stop him from building a “Healing Harp” which will be auctioned off with proceeds benefitting National Spinal Cord Injury Association (NSCIA).
In order to complete a harp, or to tune and calibrate one, you must be able to stand to reach the highest point of this tall instrument.
So how can a T5 paraplegic reach the top of a six foot tall concert grand harp, the largest in the harp family? Thanks to a little modern technology and a lot of perseverance, Flores has been able to make it happen. A standing wheelchair made it possible for Flores to do much of the manipulating at the highest parts of this harp himself over a period of three months – quick turnaround for this painstaking process. Flores received the chair through a vocational rehabilitation program.
“For me to service the harp from a standing wheelchair is significant because it carries history,” Flores said. “The image of harp makers has been inscribed on cave walls. Now, in more modern times, the image of me in my standing frame chair has been passed around the internet on a global scale.” Flores has become well known for his efforts from the disability community as well as the harp community. Flores says, “I’ve got the eyes of the world on me right now. There are people watching.” He goes on, “Now, if any, is a great time where I can do something and give something back on a huge scale. The entire world is focusing on my ability to do this successfully.” And now is a great time for Flores to chase this dream. Since his injury, he has spent the past five years working to get his body and mind back in good health. He is particularly proud of this mission and hopes that completion of this harp brings more than music to people’s ears. “It’s something that I knew the world would connect with and I thought about the fact that harps are known around the world as being a healing instrument. I thought this would be a great opportunity to bring that same healing power to the world and people with spinal cord injuries.” Flores also credits the support of the Venus Harp Company in Chicago, who have enthusiastically supported Flores personally, as well as the donation of the harp to NSCIA. Venus is a leading maker of this classic instrument.
The harp consists of many elements. Overall it is made mostly of wood, while the action, or upper mechanized part of the instrument, is comprised of brass and steel. The strings are made of steel, nylon and animal gut. According to Flores, no synthetic material out there has been able to match the sound quality that is attained when the instrument is made with such parts from nature. The entire piece is finished and decals are hand painted on the soundboard, all of which Flores had a part in. There is also new technology which was implemented in this particular harp that no other harp in the world has. “It’s a competitive industry, so this technology will remain a secret for now,” Flores shares. Flores admits he will not be making harps for too much longer, so it was a great victory for him to be able to accomplish this in his lifetime post-injury. After Flores wheels away from the world of making harps, he hopes his legacy will continue.
“I want to train an apprentice to learn some of the tricks of the trade that I have come to know, because the reality is, sooner or later it is going to take a physical toll on me.” Building this harp certainly has not been an easy task for Flores. After suffering severe injuries from the motorcycle accident, complications followed, forcing him to endure multiple surgeries and go through various medications. “My immune system, from everything I have been through, is still recovering.”
There are many physical challenges to building an instrument of such size and detail. Flores’ body was often left sore and achy from working for long periods of time. “It is all around physical on the body. It is the excruciating time and effort of working from the wheelchair that makes it difficult, but you have to be innovative and figure out ways to conserve the use of your body.” Still, little by little, this feat will be conquered and the 47 stringed instrument will stand tall at an auction which all hope will bring NSCIA some funding needed to help fulfill the mission of enabling people with spinal cord injury and disease (SCI/D) to achieve their highest level of independence, health, and personal fulfillment by providing resources, services, and peer support. “I think NSCIA has done a great of job of helping to make changes and I think they need to continue to get the message out.”
Having had a relationship with NSCIA for a few years now, the organization has been happy to follow Flores’ post-injury career and assist in any way possible, and is grateful that he has decided to give back in such a creative and inspirational way. “NSCIA came to my aid a few times. Bill Fertig, the association’s Resource Center manager, was instrumental in helping me get through to some of my doctors. He made phone calls to the hospital for me when I did not have the energy to do it myself.” He goes on, “NSCIA intervened at a time when I needed a little support and could not do certain things alone.” When Flores originally set out to obtain a standing frame wheelchair, NSCIA jumped in to support him. “Even though it wasn’t NSCIA who physically provided me with the chair, they were a fly in someone’s ear – the grease that needed to be put on somebody’s wheel.” When Flores came up with the concept of “Harp for Charity”, he pitched the idea to several organizations, trying to find the best fit. “Several organizations approached me, but none had the personal spin on it that NSCIA did. With NSCIA it wasn’t all about the money, but rather what we can do and who we can help with the money. And I remembered all the things the organization did for me. So I went with my gut and am happy to be doing this in conjunction with NSCIA.”
Getting to where he is today was clearly not a pleasant journey and was one filled with trials and tribulations, some that nearly cost him his life. But overall Flores remains optimistic. “I have no bitter feelings toward the wonderful people in health care that truly want to take care of people,” he offers. “My complications were the result of a failed health system that focused on profit rather than the person struggling with SCI and I hope the current administration is successful in reforming the system to benefit people with SCI and find ways to improve the quality of care.”
To other people out who there who may be facing similar challenges, Flores advises to make a goal in your life. He says, “Think of a realistic point where you want to be. Consider what is possible. Ask yourself what you are capable of doing. You can do it, you just have to be innovative and think differently.” He also warns, “Listen to your body. Even though certain parts of your body cannot feel, they will still talk to you in different ways. My body gives me signs, and I listen to them. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been successful.” Flores states the completion of this harp is a closing chapter in his life. “It was a goal I made from my bed and it is a goal I reached. It’s a way of saying, ‘I did it.’” Besides doing this to fulfill a personal goal, Flores says, “I did this for my mother who passed away a year before my accident. Without the beautiful gift of life, it would never have been possible.” “I also did this for the wonderful people of NSCIA and to all my brothers and sisters who live with SCI every day.”