George Flores, a virtuoso in his field as a harp technician, used to be a heavy-metal singer. He admits that the sharp turn from the world of pounding rock music in 1993 to the precise, patient tuning and building of concert harps was a dramatic one. “A heavy-metal guy coming into the classical world is extremely rare.”
But he wanted stability and a change from the wild rock ’n’ roll scene. He worked so diligently at learning his craft that professional harp players from around the world sought him out as the only person they trusted with their expensive, delicate instruments.
And when that career calling was threatened by a motorcycle accident, Flores put up a fight.
It was Sept. 11, 2004, and Flores’ motorcycle skidded off a Chicago highway. He doesn’t remember what happened, and there were no witnesses. Flores lay in the grass. “I couldn’t move no matter how hard I tried. And I couldn’t yell for help because I had a punctured lung, six broken ribs and multiple contusions,” recalls Flores, now 44. “I knew to keep calm.”
After 12 hours, someone found him. He remembers waking up in the hospital, where his uncle informed him that he would never walk again because of a spinal cord injury. “That was something that I could comprehend slightly, but it didn’t impact me at that moment,” Flores says.
Once he fully understood that he was a paraplegic, Flores says he was depressed. He remembers nurses asking whether he was suicidal. “It’s real hard to get over psychologically. Then, once you can do that, you can accept where you take things next.” For Flores, that meant wondering what kind of job he could do and what his life would be like.
Raised by a single mother who died before his accident, Flores had little family around for emotional and financial support, and his recovery and rehabilitation were not smooth. He had complications, infections and surgeries that left him in bed for 2 1/2 years. He became addicted to painkillers, gradually weaning himself. “I knew that if I wanted to get stronger, I had to do this…. I broke the pills into smaller and smaller pieces so that the withdrawal wouldn’t be so severe.”
He lived with one friend for a year, and another, Tyler Bates, reached out to help from Los Angeles. Bates, a musician and composer for film and television, has known Flores since he was a teenager. They spoke nearly every day, and Bates bought the injured man a laptop computer so he could connect to the outside world during his recovery. “He was a kid who did not have a great deal of support growing up,” Bates says. “I care a lot about him and wanted to give him some motivational and spiritual support in dealing with this.”
Bates knew Flores would have to adapt to his new condition. “You can’t live your life being exactly as you were,” Bates says. “You have to change entirely and go about rewiring yourself, your thought processes, everything.”
Flores did not want to give up his profession, however. He wanted to go back to building and tuning harps. Finding a way became an obsession.
“He has a very strong personal drive and is a very positive person,” says Wally Krasicki, owner of Venus Harps in Chicago, where Flores worked before his accident. “I came to him one day and said there is a reason this happened, as negative as it is.”
To resume building and tuning harps, Flores needed to reach the tops of the instruments, which are 6 or more feet tall. So he would need a standing wheelchair costing about $18,000, and insurance didn’t cover the purchase.
Flores started making calls. He asked agencies for financial assistance. He sought sponsorships. As he battled, Flores realized that other disabled people faced similar roadblocks and found a new mission: to become a voice for the disabled. “People with spinal cord injuries really have to fight through it. They have to be advocates for their own health.”
After months of searching, Flores finally received a standing wheelchair through a vocational program for people with disabilities. He also set a new goal: to build a “Healing Harp,” a 47-string concert-quality instrument that would be auctioned to benefit the National Spinal Cord Injury Association. Krasicki knew the endeavor, which would take place at Venus Harps, was very important to Flores. “There is love [of his craft] here, and with love comes healing,” the businessman says. “There is a spiritual mending and an emotional mending.”
So with his new standing wheelchair and help from Venus employees, Flores built a $40,000 Venus Aria model Grand Concert Harp in about three months. The folks at Venus were very supportive throughout the difficult, painstaking work, he says.
When the “Healing Harp” was completed, Merry Miller, one of Flores’ favorite clients, played it at an event for the Spinal Cord Injury Association. Miller, a world-renowned professional harpist, television personality and entrepreneur, calls Flores inspiring. She finds “it amazing that he came out alive and started doing his craft again. He’s unstoppable. He has a spirit I don’t see often.”
And he’ll always have her business. “When I needed to get my harp serviced, he was the No. 1 harp technician. I would trust no one else to do it,” Miller says. “He’s huge in the harp community.”
Bates has been similarly impressed by Flores’ comeback. “George is a fighter, and it’s been really inspiring to watch him,” the composer says. “He’s really powered through this.… He’s had to handle all of this himself, and he has created some joyous moments in his life.”
Krasicki says Flores has achieved something bigger than building the harp. “There are people out there who need a voice, and that’s where he found his place in life. His place is to keep letting people know that people in wheelchairs do not belong in the back of the room.”
And Flores has stepped up, becoming a channel for hope. He regularly answers letters and emails and speaks to people with disabilities around the country. He aims to help disabled people lead full, independent lives. “I get letters from people with all kinds of disabilities and I tell them, ‘You can get through this.’”