Unique Wheelchairs Help the Poor Worldwide

Post a Comment » Written on January 23rd, 2006     
Filed under: News
MERCER ISLAND, WA (January 23, 2006) – Li Liang-min is a village doctor in China who might not have been able to treat patients because of paralysis he suffered following a car accident 10 years ago.

However, thanks to special wheelchairs donated to the poor around the world by Free Wheelchair Missions, he is able to visit patients in their homes (accompanying photo).

Wheelchair Doctor And, thanks to Mercer Island Covenant Church, more than 1,000 tsunami victims also will be receiving those free wheelchairs. Working with the mission organization, the congregation has raised enough money through offerings to purchase 1,100 chairs and ship them to people living in areas devastated by the December 26, 2004, disaster.

The unusual wheelchairs cost only $41.71 to make and ship. Made using $3 plastic lawn chairs, mountain bike tires, and a strong metal frame, they are specially designed to be used in rugged areas.

George Duff, a member of the church who introduced the idea, says he had hoped the congregation would donate enough money to fill one container with 550 chairs. However, the generous response provided enough funds to fill two shipping containers.

Duff met Don Schoendorfer, the developer of the wheelchairs and founder of the mission, during a meeting of the Christian Management Association. “It’s quite a ministry,” Duff says.

The wheelchair parts are made in China and are shipped as kits that easily can be assembled with tools that the mission provides. The cost of labor to assemble the kits in the countries is either low or donated, says Schoendorfer. “With little training, someone who is good with his or her hands can make three wheelchairs in one hour.”

Schoendorfer earned at Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in biomedical engineering. More than 25 years ago, he witnessed a handicapped Moroccan woman crawling across a dirt road, typical of many poor areas in the world where handicapped individuals must beg for food and often are looked down upon, even by other street beggars. He was so moved that in 1999 he developed the special low-cost wheelchair, tinkering in his garage during early morning hours before going to work.

After he returned from a church mission trip and learned that the company for which he worked had gone bankrupt, Schoendorfer and his wife, Laurie, decided they would dedicate themselves to building the chairs. The family lived off savings until Laurie found a job with the Social Security Administration.

In recognition of his charitable work, Beta Sigma Gamma, a national business honor society, presented Schoendorfer with its 2005 Medallion for Entrepreneurship. Reader’s Digest has nominated him to be its 2006 Hero of the Year.

Schoendorfer says he donates the chairs free of charge because the people in the developing countries could never afford them. “Over 130 million crippled people live without wheelchairs,” Schoendorfer says. His “small goal” is to distribute at least 20 million chairs by the year 2010.

The number of chairs being distributed has increased dramatically. Duff, who works with the organization, says 30,000 were delivered in all of 2004, a number matched in just the last quarter of 2005.

So far, the organization has distributed more than 86,000 chairs to 45 countries around the world, including Uganda, India, Peru and recently Iraq. The chairs will be distributed to the tsunami victims through partner organizations such as World Vision, Duff says.

Raising funds for the project proved to be a faith-building experience for everyone, says Mercer Island pastor Greg Asimakoupoulos, who says he would have been happy if the congregation had raised enough money to fill just one container with chairs. Others were concerned about the effect of raising money for Covenant World Relief to benefit Katrina victims at the same time as asking for contributions to purchase the wheel chairs, he says.

Although the budget was $30,000 behind going into December, Asimakoupoulos says “our congregation proved that they are more than willing to respond when they are moved by people in need.

“We not only contributed close to $10,000 toward Covenant World Relief for Katrina victims, but we have given in excess of $40,000 toward the wheelchairs,” he adds. “At the end of December we eliminated the $30,000 deficit and now have a $30,000 surplus in the operating budget.”

To learn more about the free wheelchair ministry, visit the organization’s website at Wheelchairs. To learn more about Mercer Island and its ministries, please see Mercer Island.

Copyright © 2011 The Evangelical Covenant Church.

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