The Wheelchair Foundation has delivered nearly 920,000 wheelchairs in over 150 countries since its inception in 2000. As founder Kenneth Behring’s original goal of giving one million wheelchairs to disabled individuals around the world nears fulfillment, global need continues to grow. An estimated 100 million people unable to afford a wheelchair are waiting in hidden corners of the earth for the chance to experience the empowerment of mobility.
Wheelchairs were not among the donation Behring was packing in his private plane in 1999 when LSD Charities (the humanitarian outreach branch of the Latter Day Saints) asked him to drop off their aid packages en route to his African destination He readily agreed. Included in that cargo were six wheelchairs bound for a hospital in Romania. “Little did I know” he writes, “that those six wheelchairs would change the direction of my life.”
Behring, a successful Danville developer, defines the joy generated by setting a wheelchair recipient’s dreams in motion as the acheivement of purpose. In his 2004 autobiography Road to Purpose, he recount, “I lifted a small Vietnamese girl from the ground and placed her in a wheelchair. In that instant, she found hope…Her face opened into a smile, her eyes as bright as the noontime sky. And I knew for all she had changed in that moment, I had changed even more.”
Initially, Behring explored recycling used wheelchairs. The process proved the reverse of cost-effective. Packaging for shipment added to the expense of parts and labor for repairs. Then Behring asked manufacturers to design a durable wheelchair priced according to the high volume of orders he anticipated. One product seemed perfect, but it required two hours to piece together when uncrated. Today’s model comes in five sizes, ordered with regular or all-terrain tires, and can be assembled in 15 minutes. Averaging shipping costs to all destinations, the Foundation can deliver each wheelchair for just $150. In Bolivia a comparable product costs $1,700. In many countries, the price of a wheelchair exceeds an average laborer’s annual income.
The Wheelchair Foundation runs an administratively lean operation, funneling virtually every dollar into providing wheelchairs. Volunteers and service organizations across America do much of the fundraising. Unanimously declaring the positive return on their investment inestimable donors traveling on distribution trips pay their own expenses. On the receiving end, similar groups arrange local logistics including identification of recipients and appropriate configuration of the wheelchairs they require. They also fund and coordinate transportation to remote locations where wheelchairs are most needed. Rotary International, with clubs in over 200 countries, is frequently involved in all aspect of the process.
Since Bill Wheeler, founder of Blacktie Transportation, invited them on their first journey, Josh Routh and his father Don have made 20 distribution trips to 11 countries. In the remote town Juigalpa, Nicaragua, they met a 26 year-old woman who had been waiting eight years to acquire the wheelchair she needed to utilize the scholarship to Managua University she earned as a high school honors graduate. Finally enabled to pursue her studies, she chose psychology so she could hep families coping with disabilities In poorer places, when one family member is disabled, another often has to stay home from school or work to act as a caregiver.
Josh tears up as he describes a recipient brought to a wheelchair distribution in a wheelbarrow and another crawling through the dust to get there. Born with cerebral palsy, Josh has never walked. Although doctors predicted he would remain a quadriplegic, never uttering an intelligible word, the 33-year old San Ramon resident drives his own car and lives independently. A cashier at Nob Hill, Josh dedicates much of his time to aiding others.
“When you give someone the gift of mobility, you are giving them freedom and dignity…and when someone has freedom and dignity then they have hope for the future,” explains Don Routh. Now retired, Don spreads awareness of the worldwide need for the means of mobility and the elation engendered by improving the life of each wheelchair recipient. One of his initiatives at a Hayward elementary school gave low-income Latino students the opportunity to celebrate joy in their joint accomplishment: raising enough money to send six wheelchairs to less fortunate peers in El Salvador.
Don Routh plans to introduce the program the “Three Amigos” (Don, Josh and Bill) are currently piloting with the Pleasanton Unified School District to additional area school districts this spring. They provide live and video presentations, posters, collection containers, and fundraising ideas. Wheeler offers Blacktie’s community bus free for one field trip per school to either the Blackhawk Museum/Wheelchair Foundation exhibits or a wheelchair sport event. Ten wheelchairs are available for schools to borrow in rotation for students to test drive or use in fundraising races or sport competitions. For information, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Eva Carleton, Regional Director of Operations of Latin America and the Caribbean, travels on 3-4 distribution trips a year while coordinating the delivery of 40-50 projects. Every working day she helps provide someone with what sh considers a basic human right: a wheelchair. “Without a wheelchair,” Carleton notes, “you have to ask for everything you need.” Eva’s mother’s quality of life improved dramatically once she accepted how enabling the device could be. She no longer has to ring for a nurse every time she wants a simple object like a tissue.
In a Colombian community several hours from Bogota, Carleton met a woman who had been unable to work for five years due to a spinal injury. Thanks to her Foundation wheelchair, she was back at her job. Minutes later, Eva encountered another wheelchair recipient happily earning money keeping parked cars safe.
“It’s always a joy to give someone a wheelchair and it is an even greater joy to personally watch and hear how that wheelchair improved their life,” explains David Behring, President of the Wheelchair Foundation. David met Tran Nghia in 2003. Born with a neurological disorder, the Vietnamese high school student depended on family and friends to carry her everywhere. She needed a wheelchair to attend university to study English and become a doctor. The following year David visited her family and they kept in touch. In November 2012 they met again in Hanoi. “Nghia unfortunately could not become a doctor due to her disability but she did learn English and translates documents for a Vietnamese company. … Her smile was as radiant as I remembered it back in 2003.”
Kenneth Behring make a point of shaking the hand of every wheelchair recipient. “All we ask in return is a smile.” Partnering with non-governmental agencies permits the Wheelchair Foundation to give the gift of mobility with no strings attached. Creating global friendship and promoting the joy of giving are additional aspects of this non-profit organization’s mission “to deliver a wheelchair to every child, teen, and adult in the world who needs one, but cannot afford one.”
The Wheelchair Foundation’s annual Charity Ball at the Blackhawk Museum February 23rd is open to the public as are all Foundation fundraisers. Jeff Behring, Director of Special Benefits, offers a Wine for Wheels private party plan getting rave reviews nationwide as a means for finding personal purpose while sharing fun with friends. To register for the Charity Ball, plan a Wine for Wheels event, learn more about Foundation activities or to make a donation, visit www.wheelchairfoundation.org. Road to Purpose is available at the Danville Library.