Bridging Bionics gala features world champions

Kimberly Nicoletti
Special to The Aspen Times
Julius Jun Obero and his partner, Rhea Marquez, will perform in Aspen at the Bridging Bionics Gala on Sunday July 9.
Alexander Bogatyrev/SOPA Images

When Julius Jun Obero contracted polio as a 1-year-old in the Philippines, he not only lost out on the ability to carry out daily functions most people take for granted, but he also lost confidence as peers bullied him.

These days, he normally uses a brace to stand and walk, but he began para dance sport — dancing in a wheelchair — as part of his physical therapy. Now, he is an international para dance sport champion, along with his partner, Rhea Marquez. Both will perform on Sunday at Bridging Bionics Foundation’s Rise Up Gala at Hotel Jerome.

Dancing has helped Obero develop trust in himself, just one aspect of well-being that Bridging Bionics promotes in people with chronic neurological conditions through its programs.

Traditional medical insurance, Medicare and Medicaid do not cover advanced technologies, or even ongoing physical therapy, that can give people with chronic neurological conditions the ability to regain — and maintain — mobility.

That’s where the Basalt-based non-profit comes in. The foundation envisions “a world where movement is a fundamental human right.” Its mission involves providing access to affordable and ongoing physical therapy and advanced technology to individuals who can’t walk or who otherwise lack mobility due to such issues as spinal-cord or traumatic brain injuries, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, or Parkinson’s disease.

Bridging Bionics doesn’t turn away anyone who can’t afford treatment, which is why fundraising is essential. The non-profit is the only local therapy program that provides affordable access to four robotic exoskeletons. When used in combination with the Galileo whole body vibration technology, exoskeletons can reduce secondary complications of paralysis, enhance neuro-recovery and act as a preventative healthcare measure in terms of functions like better sleep, increased oxygen uptake, blood flow and bladder and bowel efficiency.

In less than eight years, Bridging Bionics has gifted more than 15,600 physical therapy sessions costing $1.17 million to individuals and invested $711,000 in equipment.

“We play a critical role for individuals with neurological challenges to not only regain mobility and walk, but also maintain their mobility,” according to its website, which also talks about how its health club environment builds community and combats socially-isolating aspects of mobility challenges.

The annual Rise Up Gala is the non-profit’s signature fundraising event, which raises at least half of its annual budget. The organization hopes to net a minimum of $400,000 through the gala.

Bridging Bionics auction will offer an opportunity for an in-home performance by John Oates.
David McClister /Photo Credit

Among the auction items at the gala, bidders will have an opportunity to bring John Oates (of Hall & Oats fame) into their home for a private little performance, along with a meal from The Little Nell’s Chef Matt Zubrod.

“After last year’s success with selling an auction item with Tiziano Gortan and Jimmy Yaeger (two former restaurateurs), I tried to think what might be really appealing for our Aspen crowd. People love experiences that they cannot buy or attain anywhere else,” said Executive Director Amanda Boxtel. “In my pleasantly persistent way  — like a bulldog on a pant leg that won’t let go because I’m so passionate about our cause — I didn’t give up. After 2 1/2 months, John emailed and called me with a, “Yes, I’ll do it.” John is very philanthropic and extremely kind.”

Fundraising efforts have helped people like Tyler Williams, who competed in 24 Hours of Aspen before he was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor and needed a wheelchair to walk his dog. Now, with the help of a Keeogo dermoskeleton and other advanced technology therapy, he can ski again.

Similarly, Nate White was told he’d never walk again, but with the aid of Bridging Bionics, he’s mountain biking and even running.

The Rise Up Gala celebrates mobility by bringing in dancers like Obero. Boxtel discovered his gold-buzzer performance online on “Pilipinas Got Talent” in 2018. She invited the pair to the 2020 gala, but the pandemic folded the plans. Last year, they couldn’t get visas in time.

“So, this is three years in the making to finally have Julius and Rhea in Aspen,” she said. “It’s my personal dream to see them perform live. As a former dancer, they speak to my heart and soul with their passion and love for what they do. It’s raw, authentic, outstanding, and real. Our audience will be moved for sure.”

And inspiring audiences brings Obero plenty of joy.

“I hope that through my talent in dancing I can help others build their confidence, to go outside their house and not just hide,” he said. “Just because you have a disability does not mean you are limited from doing things that you love.”

Marquez has learned to adjust from being a standing partner to a wheelchair dance partner through falls during lifts, a foot being rolled over by wheels, and getting hit by the frame of the wheelchair, but “I finally got the hang of it,” she said.

“The joy is in seeing how we touch each one’s lives with the talent that we have, seeing (people’s) eyes light up each time they see us perform — the smiles and the tears on their faces. This is what makes me so happy. Julius taught me so many things in life: to be resilient, to never set limits especially if you have a goal to reach,” she said.

Obero reminds people not to let any disabilities hinder goals in life and encourages them to believe in themselves.

“Make your disability a motivation to always move two steps forward,” he said. “Never be afraid of failure, never get discouraged once you failed, and never get tired of trying. Consider these things as your stepping-stones towards success. Don’t be afraid to fail. Worry about the chances you miss that you don’t even try.”

If you go…

What: Bridging Bionics Foundation Rise Up Gala
When: Sunday, July 9
Where: Hotel Jerome, Aspen
More info:

More Like This, Tap A Topic