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.”