Rolling Out Hope
As its name suggests, the Global Wheelchair Mission is anything but a local movement. Over the past decade, the Knights of Columbus has worked with the group’s U.S. and Canadian branches to distribute more than 40,000 low-cost wheelchairs in places as close as their own hometowns and as far away as the Middle East and Asia. This year alone will see distributions in the Philippines, Mexico, Haiti, Chile, the Bahamas, Kenya and Israel, among other locations.
The Global Wheelchair Mission is an alliance of non-profit organizations that provide wheelchairs for people in need. Christopher J. Lewis, president of the American Wheelchair Mission and a member of Alhambra (Calif.) Council 2431, tries to go on as many distributions as possible. Even though that’s not always possible, he recently had to add extra pages to his passport.
“In spite of all the challenges with customs, importation and travel issues, I feel as though I am exposed to the truest cross-section of good people doing God’s work on the planet,” he said. “The recipients of the wheelchairs and their families … show the greatest expressions of gratitude for the gifts they have received. They teach us a lot about humility and loving each other.”
Similarly, photographer Randy Hale of Father Philip de Carriere Council 10484 in Haines City, Fla., has accompanied the Global Wheelchair Mission on more than 20 distributions since 2010. From central Mexico to the slums of Naga in the Philippines, he has helped document the joy and tears that come with receiving an invitation to mobility.
Christiana Flessner serves as the executive director of the Canadian Wheelchair Foundation or Fondation Chaise Roulante Canada. Since 2006, she said, Knights in Canada have contributed nearly $920,000 to purchase wheelchairs.
Immediate Past State Deputy Dwight “Wil” Wilmot of British Columbia & the Yukon was present to see nearly 300 of those wheelchairs distributed last year in and around Mexico City. From Oct. 11-15, 2012, he and his late wife, Valerie, visited churches, homes and the Teletón Children’s Rehabilitation Center to give out mobility aids.
“We were treated royally by the Knights of Mexico City,” said Wilmot. “The people were so great to us. That alone left a positive memory of the event.”
Wilmot also recalled visiting a 91-year-old woman who lived with her disabled son. Before receiving a wheelchair, the son would carry his mother downstairs and then hail a taxi to take them wherever they needed to go.
“With the wheelchair there, he could now get her down to the street and wheel her himself. And it made their life so much more bearable,” said Wilmot.
When Wilmot’s wife passed away last month, he requested that donations be made to the Canadian Wheelchair Foundation in lieu of flowers.
“Our first principle is charity, to make people’s lives better, no matter where in the world they live,” he said.
For Westerners, the tropical breezes, sandy beaches and swaying palm trees of the Bahamas make for an ideal vacation spot. But venture deeper into the heart of Nassau and you’ll find crumbling stone walls and houses with boarded windows and fading paint. This was the version of the Bahamas that Florida Knights came to see as part of a distribution in Nassau and Freeport June 29-30. Led by Bob Read, past state deputy of Florida (2005-07) and a member of Marion Council 5960 in Ocala, the Florida Knights partnered with their Bahamian brothers to distribute 110 wheelchairs, walkers, canes and crutches.
The distribution came about after Archbishop Patrick C. Pinder of Nassau saw the work of the Global Wheelchair Mission in Florida and requested support. Florida Knights raised money over two years to purchase the necessary equipment. This was the first time that Knights in the Bahamas were involved with a wheelchair delivery.
Read noted that wheelchair recipients ran the gamut from young to old, from amputees to people with severe physical or intellectual disabilities.
“It went from a young man who was housebound at the age of 13 … to an elderly lady of 80 years,” he said.
The 13-year-old will now be able to attend school again after breaking his back in an accident; the senior woman, an amputee, will be able to interact again with her neighbors. In these cases — and countless others — the recipients are gifted with more than just a wheelchair; they have been given an opportunity to continue their lives.
“I’ve been doing this now for five years,” explained Read, “and each person I put into a wheelchair is just a whole new experience for me; it just re-energizes me to do the next one.”
For Knights, the Order’s partnership with the Global Wheelchair Mission is an effective way to engage in a charity that evangelizes.
“We can preach until the moon is blue … but if we don’t give [our parishioners] the roadmap to the next step of how to fulfill the message of the Gospel, then we (priests) haven’t done our job completely,” said Father John Neneman, who joined the Knights for a distribution in the Philippines April 21-May 3.
Father Neneman, the state chaplain of California, said he was unprepared for the abject poverty that he encountered in the slums of Naga, Davao and Malolos. He and Immediate Past State Deputy Raymond F. Warriner often had to walk through piles of garbage and open ditches to deliver wheelchairs. Still, Father Neneman said he never felt threatened while making the hot, humid trek to visit homebound individuals.
“I felt very safe,” he said. “People were very gracious. Obviously not everyone is Catholic, but they understood who I was as a priest and, ergo, the representative of Christ.”
And representing Christ to those in need is the ultimate goal of Knights who partner with the Global Wheelchair Mission.
Father Neneman added, “Things like the Global Wheelchair Mission give Knights of Columbus families — not just the men, but the families — an opportunity to come out of their comfort zone and truly learn what it means to give and be a presence of Christ.”
In some places, people who lose the ability to walk often suffer the humiliation of having to be carried by family members and friends. Others make crude mobility devices — planks of wood with skateboard wheels or plastic lawn chairs attached to part of a bicycle frame — that are flimsy and unsafe. Even in North America, a wheelchair can be a precious commodity to someone without medical insurance.
Bill Weber of Shaun P. O’Brien-Prince of Peace Council 11716 in Plano, Texas, gets very emotional when he talks about the Global Wheelchair Mission. He can’t help but think of his late brother, Ronnie, who had muscular dystrophy and used a wheelchair for 13 years.
“When I first got involved, I saw people who were basically crawling on their hands and knees. I knew I wanted to get involved with it and do something about it,” said Weber, who serves as wheelchair coordinator for his parish and went on a distribution to Guanajuato, Mexico, March 21-24.
Knights in Plano and Dallas have been raising money for the American Wheelchair Mission annually for the past several years. This past spring, Weber and Paul Fehmel of St. Francis of Assisi Council 12484 in Lancaster got to see their hard work in action.
“We don’t just help one person, we help 10 people — the entire family,” said Fehmel, who explained that a wheelchair benefits not just the recipient, but also the network of family and friends on whom the recipient has had to rely.
Like spokes radiating out from the center of a wheel, the Knights are now part of this network of aid. And everyone involved hopes the linkages will become stronger with time.
“I would hope that more councils get involved with [the Global Wheelchair Mission] by having some kind of wheelchair drive in their community,” said Weber. “I didn’t know what to expect when we first had our wheelchair drive, and our parish really responded to it. … They saw that for $150 they could make a big difference in a person’s life. And they liked that idea.”
PATRICK SCALISI is the senior editor of Columbia magazine.