It might just look like a common white plastic patio chair with wheels attached, but the inexpensive wheelchair becomes priceless the minute a disabled person is gently placed into it. At that moment, it becomes a life-changing gift of mobility and liberty.
The wheelchair has already given the sense of dignity, independence, and hope to thousands of disabled people who live in developing nations, and Don Schoendorfer hopes to provide them with millions more.
“We’ve given away over 580,000 wheelchairs, but the need is much greater,” Don said.
According to Schoendorfer, founder of Free Wheelchair Mission, there are approximately100 million people living in the developing world with walking disabilities. Most are forced to crawl on the ground, exposed to dangerous, unsanitary conditions. Some are abandoned, and many others live in isolation, confined to a single room, completely dependent on family. Unable to get an education or earn a living, the cycle of poverty continues.
In 1979 Don and his wife, Laurie, vacationed in Morocco, where they witnessed a disabled woman struggling to crawl across a dirt road. That image stayed with them long after they returned to Southern California, eventually prompting Don to investigate the needs of the handicapped community.
“I wondered how to best help the poor, without knowing what that meant, but God intervened and gave me the idea of a wheelchair,” Don said.
Don, a Columbia University graduate with a Ph.D. from MIT, is a mechanical engineer and inventor with more than 50 U.S. patents. Determined to keep costs low, he experimented with common parts such as an outdoor lawn chair, mountain bike tires and a simple steel frame. Don developed a durable, safe, inexpensive wheelchair, eventually leaving a successful career in 2001 to start Free Wheelchair Mission.
The mission is a nonprofit, humanitarian, faith-based organization dedicated to providing wheelchairs, free of charge, to people with disabilities living in developing nations.
The mission partners with a wide network of humanitarian, government and faith-based groups to distribute wheelchairs in 80 countries. Each wheelchair costs only $59.20 to manufacture and deliver somewhere in the world. Free Wheelchair Mission uses two factories in Shanghai to build the wheelchairs and stack them, disassembled, in 40-foot shipping containers.
“We are primarily a humanitarian organization, but we want people to know why we do this,” Don explained. “We want them to see the wheelchair as a gift from God. We tell them God loves them and He hasn’t forgotten them. We tell them to think of being in God’s hands when they’re in the chair. Unfortunately, many struggle with shame, blame and embarrassment, thinking they’ve done something evil to end up like they are.”
Mike Kenyon, Pastor of Church Development at Free Wheelchair Mission, coordinates with churches and other faith-based groups around the country, helping them get involved in the life-changing mission.
“I love seeing the light bulb come on for people,” Mike said, “It’s awesome when they realize that they can completely change someone’s life, for very little money.”
Many Newport churches and schools have had successful and rewarding fundraising events to help get people off the ground and into wheelchairs.
Free Wheelchair Mission is funded through private donations, faith-based organizations, government and foundation grants, as well as annual events such as the upcoming “Magic of Mobility” fundraiser on July 26 at the Hilton in Costa Mesa. Not only will guests enjoy an evening of inspiration, celebration, and wonderful auction items, they will also hear from two brothers from Laos whose lives have been changed since receiving wheelchairs.
The mission has 20 full- and part-time staff members as well as more than 2,000 volunteers worldwide. Deborah Anderson, a Corona del Mar resident, has volunteered there for nine years.
“I love the simplicity of the mission, Don’s passion, the passion and commitment of the staff, board members and volunteers,” Deborah said. “I have had the opportunity to go on seven mission trips, and have seen the difference firsthand this wheelchair can make in people’s lives, communities and some cultures of developing countries. Disabled people are being served in ways they never imagined possible.”
“It’s God’s mission, not mine. I’m watching God at work,” Don said. “Every wheelchair is a wild success.”