About thirty years ago, in 1977, Don Schoendorfer and his wife Laurie stopped at Tétouan, Morocco. In the midst of their vacationing, a woman appeared in their hindsight using her fingernails as traction for getting across the dirt road. She dragged her lame body like that of a snake, swerving her body in every which way just to move forward. As she dragged herself across the dirt road with a missing arm and clothes torn and bloody, a crowd of beggars snarled and laughed at her while she tried to get off the street. It’s as if she was at the bottom of the totem pole in society, even below the beggars. Many of these beggars had donkeys that were pulling their carts, so one can imagine the street traffic as this elderly woman tried to get her destination. Of all of the citizens in Morocco, it’s estimated that 500,000 of them are beggars. Don looked at this woman in dissatisfaction and wondered how he could help any disabled person that has to go through this event daily.
The Free Wheelchair Mission, located in Irvine California, is known for their one-of-a-kind wheelchair design which includes a variety of inexpensive parts, including a white plastic lawn chair, 24 inch mountain bike tires and 8-inch castors. Don Schoendorfer, the founder of FWM, launched this organization in 2001 after coming back from a vacation to Morocco with his wife. Don walked away from his career in biomedicine after receiving a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at MIT to begin designing the least inexpensive wheelchair on the market that would satisfy the need of over 100 disabled million people in the world. Don’s goal for FWM is to donate two million wheelchairs. FWM has already sent 447,005 wheelchairs to seventy six countries, including Africa, Mexico, Zambia, Haiti, and Costa Rica. Several partners work with FWM in distributing the wheelchairs, like World Vision International, the American Nicaragua Foundation and the Do It Center group.
In mid-October 2009, John Scheman got a call that his shipment was in and delivered to his company. He had received a 40 foot container of 550 wheelchairs from a factory in Shanghai. John is the president of Do It Center, an organization based in Costa Rica that improves the conditions for local schools by adding roof sheets, light switches, plywood on the desks, and other upgrades to their buildings. When he visited local communities at first, they insisted on the need for wheelchairs. John searched for international organizations that specified in wheelchair production. His organization partnered with the Free Wheelchair Mission, which distributes free wheelchairs to disabled people in over seventy six countries.
When Don finished designing the wheelchair in his garage, he had to figure out where he would first distribute it to. He conversed with a group from the church that he attended. Coincidentally, they were going to India on a mission to give medical supplied to the indigenous people that lived there. He saw this opportunity as a chance to put his wheelchair to the test. The first couple of wheelchairs he produced the group gave to an eleven year, and one to a seventeen year old woman who had lived most of her life on a rug in a mud hut constructed with straw grass over its roof.
John will be distributing these wheelchairs to the physically disabled peoples near Los Chiles, an area known for its agriculture and sport fishing centers. One person in particular is named Juan Manuel, a five year old Costa Rican boy with a shaved head, who lives with his family in a remote area five hours away from Los Chiles, Costa Rica. His family (mom, dad, and a sister) does not have the money to buy him a wheelchair. Most conventional wheelchairs are only sent to one percent of the disabled peoples in third world countries. He dreams for the day to ride a bicycle. Do It Center foundation has sent thousands of wheelchairs in towns like Puntarenas, Miramar and Esparza.
When John first received the shipment of wheelchair kits from FWM in the container, he assembled a team to help put together the wheelchair parts into separate wheelchairs. Many of these people from his team are local citizens in Los Chiles, including Red Cross volunteers and volunteers from a local church. But in order to deliver these wheelchairs, John needs to ask local natives of Los Chiles for a head-count of the physically disabled in need for a wheelchair.
“We ask the local priest at the church and say ‘okay how many people are here and how many of them need wheelchairs’, and receive an average of how many people are in the local area. But we only expect about 10% of the community to show up”, John says. During the day of distribution, a semi truck brings the container of wheelchair kits to the area. John then teaches his team how to assemble the wheelchair. With the help of a wheelchair-kit manual embedded inside the container, it takes only two hours for the team to understand the logistics of assembling this wheelchair. One container consists of approximately 550 wheelchairs. This is why they start in the morning, and the act of distributing the wheelchairs usually occurs around lunch time.
As the disabled peoples receive their wheelchairs, one can describe it as a graduation ceremony. In many aspects, when the disabled receive the wheelchairs, they stand in awe and ask themselves whether or not they can keep them. After the ceremony is done and the group goes back to their headquarters, some of those who receive the wheelchair don’t realize that it’s theirs to keep now. In some cases, groups have experienced times where the citizens run towards them as their leaving, and try to tell them that they have left their wheelchairs there.
Most wheelchairs today cost from $500 to $1000, and even used wheelchairs can be $100 to buy. In comparison, one can donate a wheelchair from FWM for $59.20. Although the price has risen since its $42.00 original price back in 2001, the wheelchair has been upgraded. The first prototype that Don produced was a standard chair from Home Depot, but FWM now purchases custom chairs produced with an ultraviolet inhibitor in Polyvinyl chloride plastic to increase the chair's lifespan. A footrest, brakes, side panels and a seat cushion are added to complete the rest of the chair. Now, Schoendorfer is currently constructing a lap table to fit across the arms of the chair for working and reading.
However, it’s always a question to whether such a cheap product can be safe for the customers who buy them. A study was done in 2008 by Susan Shore from the Medical Science Monitor to evaluate this wheelchair in areas in India. It concluded that it does have positive benefits for disabled people in any country: “There was an unexpected decrease in the overall number of ulcers with the use of the wheelchair, most likely associated with increased mobility. Reported pain levels were less than others reported, and not believed by participants to be related to use of the wheelchair. The impact on overall health and quality of life was generally viewed as positive.”
John and his team of volunteers arrive near Los Chiles early in that morning, just after sunrise hits. The town itself isn’t that large; it’s mainly surrounded by a church, a marketplace, and a park. The district of Los Chiles has a population size is 11,064 people, which most of whom are of Nicaraguan descent. His team assembles the wheelchairs, while John sets out a table with applications. The wheelchairs are placed in rows under the tents that have been erected by the volunteers. It has the look of a circus, especially with the locals coming to the event in hope for enjoyment.
The handicapped locals who wish to receive a wheelchair must fill out this application, which requires their name, age and the contact of their doctor. “But for the most part, it’s clear to see when the citizens who fill out these applications need a wheelchair” Jon says. As the locals arrive, it is also clear to see how physically disabled arrived here. They either drag their feet across the dirt road, or their family members pick them up and carry them towards the table. Most of the citizens in third world countries lose their leg(s) due to the contraction of a disease or landmines scattered across the road.
Before Don had launched Free Wheelchair Mission, he had several ups and downs before creating his final product. His garage, which he had turned into a laboratory, contained tools of all sorts to turn his concept into prototype models. During the few months of failures and clumping papers into trash bags, he came up with this frame design for the wheelchair. He had originally wanted to sell it for $25. He contacted companies in California, including Mark IV Metal Products, to produce the parts that he needed. By the time that he received all of the products and finished his final design, he produced these wheelchairs in his garage. His home then turned into a parking lot for wheelchairs, and several of his neighborhood friends were interested in this campaign.
However, the logistics of the delivery process is complex. FWM only donates wheelchairs outside of the United States, and for certain reasons. In the United States, Medicare, Medicade and private insurance companies supply wheelchairs to those who need them. Furthermore, the wheelchair is designed to be used in natural conditions, like on dirt roads or grass. Each company is also liable for its actions and therefore must send provide us with the history of their organization, like when they were founded and their 501 c3. An important rule for partnership is that a company should have a history with other organizations in the United States that distribute items to poor people in other countries.
After the companies submit their application and are accepted for partnership, they receive the wheelchairs from one of the two factories in Shanghai. The wheelchair itself consists of fifteen parts. If John ends up with extra wheelchairs, then he advises the local priest to hold onto them and distribute them to the disabled locals who deem worthy of using them. “We do give them to the local priests, or to whoever we have a stable relationship with and trust them because we have been in contact with them for a while”, John says.
The Do It Center foundation has donated over 8,000 wheelchairs to areas in Costa Rica. When they are not delivering the wheelchairs, John and his employee’s drive in their cars to areas that they have not been to yet. The first couple of drives when they first delivered wheelchairs back in 2005 weren’t far away. But now, it takes a couple of hours to pass all of the towns that they have already donated too. But when they do reach a town that they have not yet cultivated, they talk to the local priest about their mission, who sends their message to the local citizens in that area. When Jon first filled out the application to become partners with FWM, Don Schoendorfer told him his organization was the first to apply for partnership. But without the help of the employee’s that work at FWM, Jon’s vision may not have been achieved.
Eighteen employees work at the FWM headquarters in Irvine. One of the employees, named Alyson Roth, can relate to the physically disabled. Like Juan, Alyson is physically disabled from the waist down, and uses a wheelchair to get around. She was crowned “Ms. Wheelchair California” on April 4th, 2009 at the California state pageant and experienced a near-fatal car accident back in 2001. She filled out a job application on Monster.com for the free wheelchair mission, and is the development manager now, acting as a liaison between FWM and the partners. “I was involved in a car accident ten years ago that left me paralyzed. And I, at that time, I was a senior in college. And I had to use a wheelchair, obviously, because I was paralyzed from the waist down. That’s when I thought my life was over, Alyson says.”
She has traveled to Rosarito, Mexico to hand out wheelchairs to the citizens who had no mobility. She worked with Javier Tovalin, the secretary general of the city, and some volunteers from a local drug rehab helped us distribute them. One of the recipients for the wheelchair was one hundred and four years old. He was bit by a snake about a year before and lost his leg to this accident. He had to stay home for most of the days and rarely got the chance to go out.
These experiences that Alyson has witnessed built up her attitude towards life: “You know, at the age of 21, thinking that you’re going to start the rest of your world and then it’s taken away from you. So I finished my degree in teaching in Atlanta, but I knew that there was something more that I needed to do. And I actually went on the Free Wheelchair Mission website couple a months before I applied for employment there. I moved to California and went on Monster.com to apply to it. And I’ve been here for almost three years now”, Alyson says.
But in order for these partners to receive the wheelchairs, donations must come from individuals or from fundraisers. Two philanthropic events help donate wheelchairs to FWM. Ashley Herron, the events coordinator for FWM, manages the participation of FWM in these charity events. One of the events is the Surf City USA Marathon, and is their partner of charity by choice. 20,000 runners participated in this charity, and 414 of those were raising money. It occurred in Huntington Beach, California on February 7th, 2010. The event raised over $250,000 which provides over 4,000 wheelchairs to countries across the world. “We have a booth there which allows us to connect with people there and hang out with us. We had a celebratory dinner before the race, which was basically a pasta and carb load dinner”. And because FWM only donates wheelchairs to countries outside the United States, these philanthropic programs allow FWM to teach people in the U.S. the positive aspects of their mission.
Although the day of distributing the wheelchairs may be hectic, Jon says “during the ceremony where we distribute the wheelchairs, there are always two or three handicapped locals who really make the day special. There are some really sad cases of people who are disabled, and it gets really emotional during the day”. In other examples, partners have described the benefits from their donations. For example, a man named Juan from Nicaragua is now able to find a job and walk to church with his mom every Sunday. He couldn’t get surgery on his leg because it cost $300, which he did not have. Another example is of a man named Zhao, in China, who had to ride on his parents back for fifteen years because he couldn’t walk. He literally had to drag his way across his home and even outside too.
However, it can be quite hard for the companies to keep track of the disabled peoples who receive the wheelchairs and how well they have been doing. “We don’t have records of them, and it would be too expensive to anyways. There’s been numerous of people that I have remembered, but it would be good to see how they’re doing now”, John says. Although most partners can’t keep records of their donations, it’s obvious to know that those who were given the wheelchairs have only been positively affected.
This story from Costa Rica is just one of the hundreds of stories which partners from Free Wheelchair Mission have reported. Six weeks after Juan Manuel received the wheelchair, his family told FWM that Juan can now use the wheelchair to ride the 6 mile walk to church every Sunday. Don continues to work with his team to contact partners for wheelchair distribution. The Moroccan woman that Don had seen continues to push Don forward in his mission to focus his talents towards those who are less fortunate. FWM continues to hold a vision that God had brought these disabled people into life for a purpose. Their five values best exemplify all that they have done: “We conduct our mission with integrity and humility. We honor God in all we do. We value individuals and relationships. We encourage creativity and innovation. We manage with accountability, transparency and for cost-effectiveness.”
Notes on the story:
-Interview with Alyson Roth and Ashley Herron via phone
-30 minute Interview with John Scheman via Skype