In Vietnam during a distribution are (from left) British Columbia State Deputy Michael Yeo; Christiana Flessner, executive director of the Canadian Wheelchair Foundation; Father Tien Tran of Coquitlam (British Columbia) Council 5540 and Christopher Lewis, president of the American Wheelchair Mission.
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In the first moments after receiving a new wheelchair from the Global Wheelchair Mission, reactions range from elation to disbelief to inexpressible gratitude. But what happens to those same recipients in the months that follow?
Knights from Manitoba, Canada, recently had the chance to find out. Accompanied by Christiana Flessner, executive director of the Canadian Wheelchair Foundation (Fondation Chaise Roulante Canada), the Knights checked in on a 2010 wheelchair recipient in Cuba while there for another distribution this past March.
"He had heard that we might be coming, so he was expecting us at the top of the staircase in his wheelchair," said Flessner. "It really struck us. He couldn't go downstairs, but there he was. He looked much more animated, much more engaged. He was more in control of his life."
For Flessner, checking in on past wheelchair recipients is a special experience. "I think it's really meaningful for the recipients that we didn't just come and give a gift so that we feel better about ourselves," she said, "but we actually care about them."
The Supreme Council established a partnership with the Global Wheelchair Mission, an alliance of the American Wheelchair Mission and the Canadian Wheelchair Foundation, after financing a distribution of 2,000 wheelchairs to Afghanistan in 2003. Over the past eight years, the Order has facilitated the delivery of more than 20,000 wheelchairs in locations as familiar as Tennessee and Florida and as exotic as Jordan and Morocco. Volunteers on the ground and service organizations like Caritas assist with the distributions.
"The Knights of Columbus around the United States and Canada have really helped to fulfill what we're about," said Christopher Lewis, president of the American Wheelchair Mission and a member of Alhambra (Calif.) Council 2431. "The working relationship between the Canadian Knights and the U.S. Knights has developed nicely."
Indeed, Knights from British Columbia, Manitoba, California, Texas, Georgia and elsewhere have all worked together to ensure the success of wheelchair distributions in the past few months.
In addition to Cuba, recent distributions have taken place in the United States, Vietnam and the Philippines. For the most part, they have been at churches or community centers, but in several instances, volunteers traveled into the poorest villages to deliver the wheelchairs personally. Drawing people with physical disabilities out of their beds or off of their makeshift crutches, Knights and other volunteers were able to witness firsthand the transforming power of mobility for someone who has been considered "invalid" for months, years or longer.
Meanwhile, the wheelchair recipients are not the only people for whom the distributions are a life-changing experience. Often, the volunteers, too, are stunned by the significance that a simple mobility device can hold.
"It was the experience of a lifetime," said British Columbia State Deputy Michael Yeo, who traveled to Vietnam for the wheelchair distribution there. "When they came forward to get a wheelchair, their faces lit up. That smile just said everything. For them, as well as for us, it was a privilege to help them."
PATRICK SCALISI is the associate editor of Columbia magazine.