In July of 2013, a group of 40 Americans, including Rotarians from Ohio and Florida and 20 local Rotarians, traveled to El Salvador. They paid a visit to a small community of 145 people called El Milagro (The Miracle), two hours from San Salvador. The purpose was to visit a Rotary project and discuss several new proposed projects for the community. While there, the group came across a 47 year old man with a neuromuscular disease named Jesus. He was unable to move by himself, and spent his time in an old chair, repairing phones. The Rotarians had one wheelchair in their bus, and quickly went to retrieve it. Fortuitous or pre-destined, Jesus’s life was changed forever.
Two days later, in the village where Hector Manley had suffered his own terrible injury, he heard about an 80 year old man who had recently suffered a severe stroke and had only a dilapidated wheelchair to use. Hector grabbed a wheelchair and climbed into a police truck to personally deliver it to the man. Many of us were convinced there was a purpose as to why we encountered these two “forgotten” men.
Twelve years before, Hector was an 11 year old El Salvadorian boy who lost his legs during one of the worst earthquakes to ever hit Latin America. A group of Rotarians from Ohio helped him with his medical expenses and recovery. Eventually, Don and Karen Manley adopted him, thereby providing him with two families, as he continued his education and rehabilitation in the United States.
Hector knew there were many people in his home country that lacked mobility and the resources to buy a wheelchair. He also was keenly aware that many of the returning wounded veterans in the United States were going to need help as they readjusted to civilian life. Consequently, Hector came up with a project called “Paddling for a Purpose.” The idea was to kayak down the entire 2700 mile length of the Mississippi River, with his adopted father, during the summer of 2012. Through friends, family, his website, Rotarians and businesses, he raised over $37,000. This was split between the Wheelchair Foundation and the Wounded Warriors Project. The Wheelchair Foundation matched his donation and sent 270 wheelchairs to El Salvador.
The five day trip in July of 2013 is a story of family, Rotary and “giving back.” Surrounded by 20 family members, from 3 to 85 in age and decked out in matching bright neon shirts, along with Rotarians from two countries, Hector’s group made an impact everywhere. They brought gifts for the children, made hospital and Rotary project visits, and gave out wheelchairs, friendship and huge smiles. At the main wheelchair distribution, a hundred people were lined up outside the gate, eagerly anticipating the receipt of a wheelchair. Twenty people from one town had traveled three hours in an old bus. Some of the people were carried in by relatives, some had old crutches, and others were using worn out wheelchairs that were falling apart. The volunteers started assisting with the process, and it went smoothly.
Old age, birth defects and amputations from diabetes were the main causes of their disabilities. Poor pre-natal health care is a primary reason for the birth defects, and it makes you appreciate our healthcare system. Diabetes is endemic to many Latin American countries, and I have seen a sharp increase in recent years. As a Rotarian, I was relieved to only see a few polio cases, and they were middle aged men. The lack of mobility due to aging will always produce a need for wheelchairs. Our oldest recipient on this trip was 102, and didn’t retire from farming until age 92.
After the wheelchair distribution, we drove to Hector’s hometown. His birth family made a wonderful meal for the American guests, and the kids from both countries took turns knocking the “stuffing” out of two piñatas. We walked down the rocky and uneven path to his school, a rough descent with his prosthetic legs. We quickly realized why his families agreed that it would be better for him to live in the United States. It was an honor for me to witness the strength and love of both of Hector’s families, the power of Rotary in the world, and the resilience and compassion of this remarkable young man “to give back” because strangers helped him so much during his time of need.