Wheels of wonder
February 18, 2004
Two-hundred-forty wheelchairs are now a new form of mobility for 240 Peruvians, thanks to the efforts of a group of Rotarians from Colorado.
A Colorado Springs-based Rotary Club raised $40,000 to buy the chairs, and two members of the Aspen Rotary Club went to South America to witness the enormous donation in September. Tom Bracewell and Don Wrigley came back to Aspen with a new understanding of how a set of wheels can change lives.
“We all knew that this would provide freedom and an independence for the person getting the chair, but we didn’t realize how much it would free their family ” the caregivers,” Wrigley said. “Those are the people whose lives are centered around these people who are immobile. The smiles on their faces were bigger and bigger.”
In the next 12 months, the Aspen Rotary Club hopes to raise enough money for their own shipment of wheelchairs to another Third World country. The catalyst for their endeavor is a nonprofit called the Wheelchair Foundation, a California-based group that builds inexpensive, durable wheelchairs.
The Foundation looks for organizations ” like Rotary Clubs ” to raise funds to buy an entire shipment of chairs to take to people without the money to buy their own.
The Aspen Rotary Club was first introduced to the idea at a meeting last spring, when the Colorado Springs club approached them for contributions. An inspiring video from the Wheelchair Foundation was shown, and Bracewell said that was all it took.
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“What was impressive to me was within 10 minutes there was $3,000 collected,” he said. “People were sticking their hands up and saying they’d buy wheelchairs, and I was taken aback.”
Aspen Rotarians decided to begin their own fund-raiser for wheelchairs, and have since raised $8,000 for a trip of their own within the next year. In the meantime, Bracewell and Wrigley joined the Colorado Springs contingent on their trip to Iquitos, a city in the Peruvian Amazon.
Wheels and smiles
It was a hot, muggy day in the Amazon when the Rotarians unfolded wheelchairs for native Peruvians for the first time. At a local hall for the Iquitos Lions Club, families crowded together to watch the spectacle.
Iquitos is a city of 500,000 people, north-northwest of Lima where three rivers meet in the Amazon rain forest. Wrigley said the shipment of 240 wheelchairs left the factories in China a full 14 months before arriving at their destination ” the time was needed to boat the container of chairs across the Pacific, around Cape Horn and up the Amazon River.
Since the Wheelchair Foundation won’t ship to an individual or a government entity ” an effort to ensure that the wheelchairs wind up in the right hands ” nongovernmental organizations are needed in the arrival country to accept the shipment. In this case, a Colorado Springs Rotary had connections with the local Rotary and Lions clubs in Iquitos, and members were there to help.
A local Iquitos doctor and Rotarian had screened potential wheelchair recipients, making home visits to ensure that each family could accommodate a chair. And when people of all ages arrived in the Lions Club hall to receive their new wheels, they came via dilapidated means of transportation.
“There were homemade crutches, and lawn chairs with casters on them ” it was unbelievable what they came in with,” said Bracewell. One man was almost sitting on the ground in his own homemade scooter.
“This guy hardly even smiled or looked at you. He was very proud,” Bracewell said. “His friend told us he lives on his wage of about $2 a month. When he got into the wheelchair, it was the first time I saw him smile. I shook his hand and it was like he didn’t believe until then he was going to get a wheelchair.”
Wrigley’s wife, Judy, went along with her husband and Bracewell, and wound up acting as an interpreter much of the time since she is a recently retired high school Spanish teacher. During the distribution process, she often explained to new wheelchair owners why they had to wait for their footrests to be properly adjusted.
“Some kids had separation anxiety, because their family members have always been holding on to them,” Wrigley said. “But we showed them how to use the chair and the breaks. A couple of the guys who had been in wheelchairs before were popping wheelies within 10 minutes. One told me he intended to set up a basketball league.”
Being disabled does carry a stigma in Iquitos as the trio found out one day while walking through Belen, the poorest of the city’s neighborhood. A boy playing soccer broke his leg right in front of the group, and while they helped get an ambulance and a splint he called out, “I don’t want to be a cripple.”
“In their society that is a big fear,” Judy Wrigley said. Incidentally, the boy’s father works for the government and had insurance for his care at a local hospital ” which is rare in that particular neighborhood.
The trip to Peru ended on a serendipitous note. During a brief bus tour of the city of Lima, Bracewell was walking through a plaza near a cathedral when an older woman rolled by in a wheelchair.
“As she got closer, we noticed it was an older Wheelchair Foundation chair she was in ” they have placards on them that show that,” Bracewell said. “It was kind of a ‘Twilight Zone’ experience, but I guess it really shows the durability of these things.”
Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org