The Gift of Mobility

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2/1/2010

Knight Sam Szalwinski of San Antonio did not speak much Spanish. And the woman from the border town of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, who received a wheelchair from Szalwinski, did not speak any English.

“We didn’t need language to understand what was transpiring,” said Szalwinski, a member of St. Mark the Evangelist Council 7613 in San Antonio and the Texas state wheelchair mission chairman.

“I had tears in my eyes,” he added, recalling an emotion-filled presentation of wheelchairs to the needy in Nuevo Laredo. “The lady was so gracious and so joyful.”

Such is a snapshot of one of the Order’s most successful charitable endeavors: its partnership with the Global Wheelchair Mission, an alliance of the American Wheelchair Mission and the Canadian Wheelchair Foundation (Fondation Chaise Roulante Canada). For relatively little cost, the initiative transforms thousands of lives around the world. From veterans in Florida and seniors in Saskatchewan to villagers in Afghanistan, Knights are making a difference — one wheelchair at a time.

TRANSFORMING LIVES Back to Top

In developing countries, delivering a wheelchair improves the lives of about 10 people, said Christopher Lewis, a member of Alhambra (Calif.) Council 2431 and president of the American Wheelchair Mission.

Life improves not only for those in need of wheelchairs — some of whom move about literally by crawling along the concrete of city streets or the dirt of rural villages — but also for their families and neighbors. As immobile children receive wheelchairs, this pathway to independence allows them to attend school, often for the first time. Their parents can then go to work to provide for their families instead of being full-time caretakers.

Wheelchair distributions transcend political and language barriers as well, and can be the cause of great celebration. Lewis recalled the reaction of one Chilean neighborhood: “When we delivered a wheelchair, it was like a block party. The wheelchair had an impact on an entire city block.”

According to Lewis, approximately 3 percent of people in developing countries require wheelchairs. In countries dotted with landmines from long-forgotten wars, such as Angola, as many as 20 percent suffer some disability. All together, it is estimated that approximately 100 million people around the world are in need of wheelchairs, but cannot afford them.

The Knights’ involvement with the distributions began in 2003 when the Supreme Council sponsored the delivery of 2,000 wheelchairs to Afghanistan, and then to Jordan, the Philippines, Poland and Mexico the following year. California Knights picked up the mission in 2003 and have set the pace for the rest of the country. Since then, Knights have sponsored the delivery of more than 20,000 wheelchairs.

Wheelchairs similar to those distributed by the Global Wheelchair Mission typically sell for more than $500 in a medical supply store. Yet, because the wheelchairs are purchased in bulk and containers of 100-280 wheelchairs are shipped from the factory to the country of destination, the Global Wheelchair Mission is able to provide the wheelchairs for just $150 each.

In many cases, donors receive a personalized photo of the person who is given a wheelchair, connecting a modest donation with a human face filled with gratitude. Also, the emblem of the Order is stitched on the back of each wheelchair.

The Knights’ current partnership with the Global Wheelchair Mission grew out of its previous collaboration with the Wheelchair Foundation, an organization Lewis helped create in 2000.

Lewis said his own involvement in the cause has its roots in his lifelong participation with the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s Labor Day Telethon led by his famous father, comedian and actor Jerry Lewis. Since he began working on the telethon in 1972 at the age of 14, Chris has always been dedicated to helping people with physical disabilities. The wheelchair mission was a natural progression.

BEYOND BORDERS Back to Top

The need for basic mobility wheelchairs is not confined to developing countries; there is also a need being met by Knights across North America.

Although wheelchair efforts in Texas have focused on the needy across the nearby Mexican border, they have also benefited retired priests and bishops at the Archdiocese of San Antonio’s Padua Place, a local retirement residence.

Elsewhere, the impact of donated wheelchairs on the lives of veterans living on limited budgets has been substantial. The Wheelchairs for Veterans program launched on Veterans Day in 2007 when the Supreme Council donated 2,000 wheelchairs to veterans in Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago and Washington, D.C. Additional wheelchairs for veterans have recently been distributed in California, Arizona, Texas, Tennessee, Florida, Georgia and New Jersey.

Past State Deputy Bob Read of Marion Council 5960 in Ocala, Fla., who now serves as state chairman of the wheelchair mission, said the Knights in Florida have focused their efforts on U.S. veterans from World War II to the present. The reaction is palpable.

“Some have gone through 15 years of struggling,” he said. “They are just overwhelmed that there are people who really care. They didn’t realize there were people like this out there for them.”

Read’s pitch at Florida parishes and K of C councils is simple. “We let people know that the reason for the campaign is to bring hope and mobility for those who need it,” he said. In addition to veterans, the Florida Knights also reach out to needy members in their local communities.

“Outside developed countries, it is very dramatic,” said Lewis. In many cases, by giving someone a wheelchair, “You are making the difference between a person wanting to live and wanting to die.” One recipient in Mexico City had spent two decades moving around solely by using a metal skateboard before he received a wheelchair with the help of the Order. Last November, when Knights distributed wheelchairs in Los Reyes, Mexico, many recipients were able to attend Mass that day for the first time in years.

In Mexico alone, Lewis has been part of the effort to distribute approximately 120,000 wheelchairs — and the need continues.

K of C councils in Mexico and other parts of Latin America act as official distribution partners for the wheelchairs, identifying recipients with help from social workers and local organizations. They also host visiting Knights from the United States and Canada.

U.S. and Canadian councils, meanwhile, have been conducting “Wheelchair Sunday” parish drives to raise funds for and awareness of the humanitarian mission. Thousands of wheelchairs have been sponsored in response to a brief video presentation, and hundreds of men have decided to join the Knights as a result.

Indeed, Knights involved in the Global Wheelchair Mission find that this practical and effective outreach to the needy is a strong recruiting tool. When men hear about it, they want to join and get involved. In fact, a council was formed at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City as a direct result of men inspired by the wheelchair distributions there.

Christiana Flessner, executive director of the Canadian Wheelchair Foundation, explained, “Our simple, straight-forward and impactful program allows even the smallest communities in Canada to connect to far-away places and peoples, connecting Knights to Knights and hearts to hearts.”

Larry Kustra, past state deputy of Manitoba and a member of St. Emile Council 8221 in Winnipeg, said the effort generates interest among young and old alike. “The program has given [Knights in Manitoba] a broader perspective than just local charity needs,” he said. A distribution in Cuba sponsored by the Manitoba Knights is planned for this year.

Dan Heffernan, Ontario state advocate and state wheelchair program director, traveled a second time to Mexico in 2008 with a K of C delegation. Once there, Knights distributed wheelchairs along with Toronto Blue Jays baseball caps as gifts.

According to Heffernan, a wheelchair is a valuable asset in Mexico, where many people subsist on an average annual wage of just $1,500. He was very touched by the remarks of a priest at a wheelchair distribution Mass there: “People come here like eagles with only one wing. The Knights gave them the other one; now they can fly.”

THE NEED IS GREAT Back to Top

In late 2008, Past State Deputy Marvin DeSchryver of Saskatchewan and his wife, Pat, escaped the Canadian winter to the Dominican Republic to deliver wheelchairs in and around Santo Domingo. A province large in size and small in population, Saskatchewan has the most per capita donations of wheelchairs among all the Order’s jurisdictions.

One of the wheelchairs donated by Saskatchewan Knights gave mobility and freedom to a 34-year-old man who was physically disabled by an accident as a child. In another case, a 92-year-old woman had been bedridden and in need of a wheelchair for eight years.

The small group of Saskatchewan Knights who traveled to the Dominican Republic also came prepared with an abundance of necessities and other goods for distribution to the poor.

“It seemed wherever we went, the children would gather around,” recalled DeSchryver. “We gave out school supplies, toothbrushes, small toys, Canadian flag pins and more than 100 handmade rosaries.”

In the town of Samana, Knights were met by a mother, her sister and an eight-year-old child.

“What was unique is that they heard of the distribution and just showed up, taking a chance that they might get a wheelchair,” noted DeSchryver. Their hopes were met, as there was an extra wheelchair available, and they received the gift with tears of joy.

Still, Knights are not content to rest on memories of grateful people receiving assistance. There is a strong sense that the effort should continue because the need is great.

During the long van ride back from one of their trips to Mexico, Texas Knights recounted the emotions connected to wheelchair distributions. “It is very emotional to present a wheelchair to a person in need,” explained Szalwinski. He added that one of the Knights’ wives expressed concern that they continue the momentum from their journey and not become complacent. “She said, ‘The time for emotion is over. We need to get into action.’”

And so, through the Order’s partnership with the Global Wheelchair Mission, the Knights from San Antonio, as well as scores of other councils across North America, continue to expand this humanitarian outreach, answering prayers and changing lives.

For more information about the Global Wheelchair Mission, including video clips and support materials, visit www.kofc.org/wheelchair.