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a worthy cause (move to canteen, as appropriate)
July 25, 2004
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METROPOLIS / SNAPSHOTS FROM THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE
A Moving Mission
* A Santa Ana Man Is a Wheeler-Dealer for the Disabled
The sight of a disabled Moroccan woman dragging herself across a hot dirt road so moved Don Schoendorfer that he vowed someday to help her and others. Twenty-two years later, the Santa Ana mechanical engineer developed the cheapest-known functional wheelchair—made of a simple plastic lawn chair and a pair of mountain bike tires. Cost: $41.17, which includes shipping and distribution. Currently made in two China factories, about 30,000 of the sturdy contraptions have been given free to the disabled in 37 countries, including India, Iraq, Peru, China, Angola, Zimbabwe, Mexico and Afghanistan. Funded by donations, his nonprofit Free Wheelchair Mission's goal is to distribute 20 million chairs by 2010 to the estimated 100 million people worldwide who cannot afford one.
Why wheelchairs as opposed to, say, glasses or hearing devices?
People ask me that question, and I'm not really sure what the answer is. My wife and I made a trip to Morocco in 1977, and there were beggars on all corners of a dirt road, and this woman appears, trying to cross the road using one arm and dragging her other arm and two legs behind her, literally digging her fingers into the dirt. We wanted to do something, but we didn't know how.
What's been the most significant obstacle in getting wheelchairs to these untold millions?
They're so expensive. Some fine organizations have spent years volunteering, trying to solve this problem. People outgrow wheelchairs or people die, so people donate these wheelchairs. But they're all different and they have to be fixed. It's still not cost-effective. Most wheelchairs today cost about $150—but they can go up to $30,000. And I think it's a question of priorities. Disabled people are not on the top of the list or first in line for much of anything in any country.
*How did your background as an engineer work into the equation?
It was, let's see how much money you can take out of the conventional wheelchair and still have it functional. You need a chair and you need wheels. The cheapest mass-produced chair I could find was the resin patio lawn chair for $3 at Home Depot, and a pair of bicycle tires are about $10. There's a simple steel frame and front casters.
*Why do you think we don't see the disabled in America crawling on the ground?
Probably because it'd be culturally unacceptable for us. And in America—and the developed countries—if you're too poor, the government will buy you one, or your church or a charitable group. Someone will get you a chair.
*Has the U.S. government shown any interest in distributing and/or manufacturing the chair on a larger scale?
In bits and pieces. The U.S. Navy takes some to Mexico; the Marines pick them up in Kuwait and get them to Iraq.
*What obstacles did you encounter getting these chairs made, delivered and into the hands of the recipients?
Everybody was suspicious of what I had in mind. It was just a little hard to believe that I wanted to give millions of wheelchairs away for free. There must be some other motive. It was just difficult for anybody to think this was for real. For me, it's the love that Jesus described and the Good Samaritan.
*You go on many of these mission trips yourself to help deliver the wheelchairs. What's one of your most memorable encounters?
In Luanda, the capital city of Angola. So many people left the countryside because of the civil war, the turmoil and torture, that the city is flooded with refugees. On one trip there, I saw these two heads racing along between some hills. One man had a pole and the other had two bricks to throw forward and they'd drag their legs. They went so fast dust formed behind them. By the time we got down out of the truck they were right next to us. One man held onto the leg of a wheelchair, not in an aggressive move, but you could tell he was praying, hoping and wishing that this was going to be his wheelchair. Both he and his friend did get wheelchairs, but by this time about 15 other people had dragged themselves to us. One of the happiest days of my life turned into one of the saddest because we only had two wheelchairs left.
*How is it a different kind of experience than feeding hungry people?
It's a long-term, tangible result. The wheelchair changes their whole life: it changes their feeling about life; it demonstrates someone cares for them and gives them hope for a better life. It's a demonstration of love. We keep photos of some recipients as they receive their wheelchair. In some countries, the poorest people appear in these photos in quite nice clothes. People comment on this. They've borrowed the clothes to look their best. It's because this is the most important day in their lives. It's the day they get their humanity back.