Mobility mission accomplished
From Sept. 7-19, 2005, 20 volunteers from the United States helped distribute 198 wheelchairs, walkers, crutches and canes to the poorest of the poor in Bariloche, Argentina. Our mission is accomplished thanks to our generous donors and the support from the Aspen community. Gratitude, overwhelming gratitude is how I describe these past 14 days.
Here is an account of my personal experience and that of Juan Pablo, whose life is forever changed:
One year ago in Bariloche, at a school called Alumine, I saw disabled children lying on mats on a tiled floor without wheelchairs. I was shocked. As I raised my camera and took their photographs, I felt like I robbed every bit of dignity from their bodies … and I made a quiet promise to myself that every child I met would have a wheelchair to call their own in September 2005. With the collaboration of hundreds of people, two sister cities, and four organizations ” Aspen Sister Cities, Bariloche Sister Cities, Challenge Aspen and The Mobility Project ” our project is complete.
San Carlos de Bariloche is nestled in the Andes bordering the Nahuel Huapi ” a vast lake one day rhythmically lapping white capped waves and the next, crystal calm as calm can be. In the distance, Cerro Catedral, the ski area, marks the horizon, shining white against a cobalt sky. Timber houses form a cityscape dwarfed by the majestic backdrop. Tourism is this city’s staple, yet who would know that hidden in the backdrop were children and adults who are mobility impaired and did not have a wheelchair to call their own. Who would guess the disparity in the population ” that the poorest of the poor truly exist in this city of 100,000?
The Mobility Project, a non-profit organization, provided a containerload of 198 refurbished wheelchairs from the United States of America to make this project a reality in Bariloche. Over the course of nine days, our team of 20 volunteers distributed approximately 175 wheelchairs and gave away many walkers, canes, and commodes for mobility impaired individuals. Hospitals and institutions were left with a supply of wheelchairs for newly injured patients, and a team of skilled occupational and physical therapists from Bariloche will fit the remaining chairs for recipients who were too weak to travel from outlying areas.
Gratitude. Gratitude is the thankfulness for the gifts in life and the gift of life.
I am grateful for all that I have, but mostly I am grateful for my mobility, my freedom to push in a lavender-colored wheelchair so beautifully custom-made that I roll with ease, my posture is perfect, and the best part is that my little castor wheels flash blue, green and red like jewelry, always in the mood for a party. How could I not be grateful?
Juan Pablo is our first wheelchair recipient. He is wheeled into Team Mobility Project, his wheelchair borrowed from our base camp, the School of Alumine. His petite wife Julietta had carried Juan Pablo to a taxi from their home. She lifted him from a small bed inside their three-by-four meter house, aluminum and wood-shingled together, that has a table and a stove for cooking and warmth. No wheelchair in sight, no bathroom or running water.
Juan Pablo is 22 and looks 17. He has been paralyzed for five years after five gunshots causing his paralysis, momentary death and consequent anoxia. He can no longer speak.
Our team of volunteers assesses the situation, quickly chooses a wheelchair from the 200 clogging the back rooms at the school, and proceeds to fit Juan Pablo with his first wheelchair in his paralyzed life. He is obviously thrilled, grinning with complete gratitude, and his wife is speechless. He learns how to spin and how to pop his first wheelie. We provide him with a commode so he can go to the bathroom inside his house for the first time. I dare to look up at our team. All of us have tears streaming down our cheeks ” tears of overwhelming gratitude.
In a large room out front, about 30 others waited to be fitted for their first wheelchair. Some were adults, some children, all patiently waiting. How long have they been waiting? Some for an entire lifetime: Jose, a double amputee, for 35 years; Javier, a young quadriplegic, for 11 months; Leonardo, paraplegic, for seven years and another paraplegic injured just one month ago.
Our team of wheelchair athletes taught approximately 20 new wheelchair recipients how to use their chairs in real-life situations climbing curbs, popping wheelies and bumping down stairs backwards. Wheelchair tennis and basketball became an excuse to have fun … and then we took them skiing. Yes, downhill skiing!
Challenge Aspen’s sister program, Desafio Bariloche, ramps the Andes for individuals with disabilities by means of adaptive skiing. With specially adapted equipment and trained instructors, 20 new wheelchair recipients skied from the top of Cathedral Mountain for the first time in their lives.
In literally nine days, Juan Pablo went from rarely seeing the sunlight hidden indoors to playing wheelchair tennis and basketball, and skiing independently, dancing his own turns from a bi-ski, in perfect rhythm from the top of Cathedral Mountain.
“No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings.” (William Blake)
Juan Pablo is one of 198 mobility-impaired individuals who have experienced the gift of mobility, of hope, of restored dignity and of newfound independence. From Juan Pablo, who cannot tell us in words, but with his eyes and his smile: “With love and gratitude to all who made this project possible. Thank you!”
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