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Wheelchairs and the Work of God


By Rose Wagner

(Photo by Randy Hale)

March 1 is international wheelchair day. Check out this story about Chris Lewis — son of actor Jerry Lewis and a member of St. Angela Merici Council 5210. Chris helped to create the American Wheelchair Mission that has delivered nearly a million wheelchairs to people in need.

Chris Lewis’ bio describes him as born into the world of show business. One of Jerry Lewis’ six sons, Chris brings to the world the joy one would expect from the child of a comedic legend.

“Like most kids, I wanted to be like my dad,” Chris said. “But it wasn’t in doing silly stuff and falling down; it was helping people who couldn’t help themselves.”

Helping people was a Lewis family affair: From the age of 14, Chris worked with his dad on the annual Muscular Dystrophy Association Labor Day telethon. He started by running errands on set, but by Jerry’s last year as host in 2010, Chris was associate producer.

The telethon greatly influenced Chris’s path in the Global Wheelchair Mission: He today serves as the president of the American Wheelchair Mission, as well as a chairman and board member of the Canadian Wheelchair Foundation.

“I decided a long time ago this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. And I had a good teacher in watching my father raising money to the tune of over $2 billion for the Muscular Dystrophy Association,” he said during a recent visit to Supreme Council headquarters.

Today Chris’ work with the wheelchair mission impacts millions. Nearly 100 million people worldwide need a wheelchair, he said, but they can’t afford one. And since many cultures consider it a curse to have somebody with a physical disability, people with mobility limitations often get hidden away, unable to ever leave their homes.

That is until the wheelchair mission volunteers come to town.

The Knights of Columbus are among those volunteers. Knights have supported the wheelchair mission since 2003. In that time, Knights have purchased and distributed of more than 70,000 wheelchairs around the world.

This doesn’t just change the lives of the recipients. It also impacts families and the community — on average about 10 lives. “That’s 700,000 people whose lives have been changed.” Chris said.

The distribution process, he said, starts with a donation of $150 for a single wheelchair. Once 280 wheelchairs are purchased, a container is shipped from Drive Medical in Port Washington, N.Y., to the distribution site.

When asked to share his favorite memory of wheelchair distribution, Chris has trouble choosing just one. But one he does share is that of nearly 80-year old man who told Chris: “I haven’t felt like I was a man because I’d been crawling on the ground. Now I can sit up and I can look at people eye to eye, and say I’m a man again.”

As Chris says, “Something that we’ve discovered over the many years of delivering wheelchairs is that the wheelchair itself is not always the greatest gift.”

A hug, he explains, is “one of the greatest gifts they’ve ever received in their lives. Because they know another human being cares.”

And much like this father collaborated with his own Hollywood “family” in his many MDA projects, Chris finds support from his brother Knights.

“It really is a wonderful collaboration of deep rooted goodness,” he said. “People want to do good in the world, but they haven’t found a way to do it yet. We’re giving them the way to touch people in a way that they’ve never been able to do before. Doing that as a group of Knights is really, really amazing.”

For the complete video interview with Chris Lewis, click here. Find out how your council can support the wheelchair mission by visiting amwheelchair.org or cdnwheelchair.ca.

This story was originally published as “Bringing Mobility, Uniting Friends and Doing the Work of God” in Knightline, the publication for Knights of Columbus members and leaders. To share your story in Knightline or another K of C publication, email rose.wagner@kofc.org or knightline@kofc.org.