Founded in 2001, Free Wheelchair Mission is an international nonprofit organization dedicated to providing wheelchairs for the impoverished disabled in developing nations.
The mission of the FWM is "to provide the transforming gift of mobility to the physically disabled poor in developing countries, as motivated by Jesus Christ."
Many local Rotarians have become involved in the organization, and the Cashiers Rotary Club has specifically raised and donated funds toward its efforts. Read one Rotarian's accounting in the article below, originally published in "The Laurel Magazine."
550 Wheelchairs to Montero Bolivia
It began with a 7 minute speech, and ended 10 months later with the partnership of 10 Rotary Clubs, $40,000 and a life changing experience.
Jim Hardy was told he would have 20 minutes to make a presentation to the Cashiers Rotary Club. Jim, who lives in Brevard, volunteers as an ambassador for Free Wheelchair Missions and was a last minute fill in for another speaker who had to cancel. He arrived around 7:15 a.m. on that Wednesday with a wheelchair in the trunk of his Toyota. As he set up his power point equipment the club president, Vic Galef, told him the club always adjourned promptly, without exception, at 9 o'clock.
Also scheduled during that one hour meeting were the inductions of 5 new members. Each was asked to give a speech, and when the inductions finished, it was 8:53 am...Jim had 7 minutes to give his 20 minute presentation. So he decided to talk about Don Schoendorfer, the person who started FWM in 2001.
Don holds a Phd. in mechanical engineering from MIT, as well as 60 patents for biomedical devices. While in Morocco with his wife, he saw a woman crawling on the ground through traffic and asked his guide why she didn't have a wheelchair. The guide replied that wheelchairs were too expensive for people in that country.
Some time later, after returning to his home in California, Don concluded God had given him talents which should be used to help the less fortunate. He kept thinking about that woman in Morocco, so he went into his garage, took the wheels off his mountain bike, sawed off the legs of a plastic patio chair, bent some metal conduit used by electricians, and built a wheelchair. Fast forward 12 years, and Don's organization has delivered almost 700,000 of these wheelchairs, and their newest version, the Gen 2, to people in 84 countries. For $71.88, the cost to fill up a gas tank in a SUV, a wheelchair can be manufactured, shipped and delivered to a crippled person any where in the world. Our Rotary meeting adjourned promptly at 9, and Jim left with one check for one wheelchair. But many in attendance also took his brochures.
A few days later I went to the web site for FWM, learned more about them, and sent a contribution along with an email request asking how I could go to one of these countries and help with deliveries. I received a reply that members of our club had already donated $26,000, and if we raised $36,000 we could purchase an entire container of 550 chairs and choose where they should go. Unbeknownst to me, Vic Galef was already hard at work coordinating with 5 other nearby Rotary Clubs and our Asst. District Governor Jodie Cook. Soon they had raised $40,000 for this project. Dr. John Baumrucker from Highlands had already been to Bolivia on 15 mission trips, and he volunteered to coordinate delivery and distribution of the chairs through 4 more Rotary Clubs in and near Montero, Bolivia. With all the pieces in place, the chairs were ordered, manufactured and delivered.
Don Schoendorfer came from California to Cashiers in April, so he could meet this group of people who had coordinated so much so quickly, and to personally train us in the proper assembly of the Gen 2 chairs. Jim Hardy, his wife Alice, and Tom Harley volunteered to go with me to Montero for a week in May, where we met up with Dr. Baumrucker and the local Rotarians.
We were able to assemble almost 100 of the 550 chairs and distribute them to very poor people...many who had crawled on the ground their entire lives. For the first time they now had mobility, independence and some dignity.
My new definition of a life changing experience: watching the face of a 6 year old crippled boy light up when he sees his own personal wheelchair for the first time. Then the tears of joy begin pouring from his eyes, joined by the tears from his entire family as they embrace you and thank you. Soon you're crying with them. And all it took was the cost of one fill up for a SUV.
For more information, go to Freewheelchairmission.org. One chair will change the lives of an entire family.
About the author: Duncan Wheale is a retired senior Superior Court Judge from Augusta, Georgia. He now resides in Cashiers and Charleston, SC.