Cal Poly students and alumni are giving the gift of mobility through the Wheelchair Foundation, a nonprofit organization seeking to deliver a wheelchair to everyone who needs one.
In September, 10 Cal Poly graduates traveled to Guatemala to distribute wheelchairs to people in need, like Nari, a 13-year-old Guatemalan boy who has been paralyzed since birth. For the past seven years, Nari crawled up a large hill on his hands and knees in order to get to school.
“Giving someone a wheelchair is not just changing their life for one day,” Emily Berenberg a 2004 social science graduate said. “They are now being able to go out and have an active life. It just really makes you realize that a little bit goes a long way.”
Another 14-year-old Guatemalan girl has a disease that makes her bones very brittle. Without any means of transportation, she was unable to attend school, but after receiving a wheelchair from the Wheelchair Foundation, she began first grade this fall.
“While saving the world is an overwhelming thought, there are plenty of small ways to make a big difference,” Berenberg said. “I have realized that there is no way that one person can truly save the world, but we can make the world a better place by impacting the life of one person at a time.”
Berenberg became involved with the Wheelchair Foundation in 2003 for her senior project. Along with 11 others, Berenberg organized an auction at the Madonna Inn that raised $22,000 and sent 280 wheelchairs to Thailand in 2004.
For the 2005 trip to Guatemala, the Wheelchair Foundation needed people to help distribute the wheelchairs, so they opened the opportunity to alumni who then purchased their own tickets to travel the distance to make a difference.
“That was really impressive that people actually took time off of work and paid their own way to go,” said Lynn Metcalf, Cal Poly Chapter adviser to the Wheelchair Foundation said. “To give the gift of mobility was a rich, rewarding, memorable, and life-changing experience. An amazing group of individuals became a community of givers.”
In addition to distributing wheelchairs, the team also distributed shoes, socks, underwear, baby clothes, blankets, hygiene kits, toys and craft materials to children in orphanages in Guatemala.
“It was terrible, so sad, but so good,” Berenberg said. “We would ask kids at the orphanages what they liked to do for fun and they said they couldn’t really do anything, not even go to the library because they didn’t have any shoes.”
Berenberg explained that a new library is being built in Guatemala City that will have 12 new computers and offer classes on Microsoft Word and Excel.
“Giving children new shoes does more for them than protect their feet,” she said. “New shoes allow them to go to school and going to school will hopefully allow them to have a brighter future than their parents. Giving a wheelchair to a grown person does more than make them mobile. It allows them to have freedom and to be able to begin to make a life for themselves. In this country, we look at people in a wheelchair as someone who has a disability, but down there having a wheelchair makes things a thousand times better.”
In 2001, Metcalf helped build the first collegiate chapter of the Wheelchair Foundation. Since its establishment, the Cal Poly Chapter has raised over $90,000 and sent more than 1,200 wheelchairs to Peru, Ethiopia, Thailand and Guatemala. This year, the Cal Poly Chapter hopes to raise $44,000 and send 560 wheelchairs to Belize.
Fourteen Cal Poly students, including marketing junior Jaime Ransom, are participating in the Wheelchair Foundation’s trip to Belize for their senior projects this year. According to the Human Development Index, one out of every three people in Belize is living below the poverty line. There are no programs to assist people living with disabilities, and without mobility the disabled must be dragged, carried, or left behind. The disabled children have no access to education, and the adults cannot work to support their families.
“The gift of a wheelchair provides access to opportunity and helps relieve the burden on a family,” Metcalf said. “It’s impossible to see the need and not be motivated to help.”
This year’s team is planning a fundraising event at The Cliffs Resort in Pismo Beach set for April 1, 2006. The Gift of Mobility Benefit consists of a gala dinner and a live silent auction. Tickets are $75, which purchases one wheelchair that will be sent to Belize.
“This project will allow me to see the world and make a tremendous difference in the lives of so many,” said Ransom, the auction and co-event manager. “Knowing how people in other countries live on a day-to-day basis… it just touches my heart to know what we are doing for them. We’re part of a global community and we’re doing something to give back.