Pleasanton Weekly

Cover Story - March 11, 2011

Changing lives

Rotarians deliver hope and independence along with wheelchairs

by Dolores Fox Ciardelli

When Bob Athenour visits Tulancingo, Mexico, he always heads to the plaza for a shoeshine. Athenour, a former Spanish teacher at Amador Valley High, founded the Pleasanton-Tulancingo sister-city program in 1984, and when Pleasanton Rotary started wheelchair distribution in Latin America, he helped kick off the program with his sister-city connections.

"On my visit to Tulancingo last year I went down to the square to get my shoes shined, and the shoeshine boy that I went up to had a wheelchair -- and it was one of our wheelchairs that we'd brought down on a previous trip," Athenour recalled.

The boy recognized the Rotarian logo on his shirt.

"It was very rewarding, just that smile," Athenour said. "Even though I've been on a number of distributions, it still gets at me. I just realize how unfortunate some people are who do not have mobility.

"Many of them maybe have not ever had mobility in their lives and they're adults," he continued. "It's a whole new world opening for them, to suddenly get out of the house, maybe get down and shine shoes and make a little bit of money."

Pleasanton Rotary decided in 2003 to join forces with the Wheelchair Foundation in Blackhawk, which was founded in 2000 and has distributed more than 848,000 wheelchairs, often in rural, poor or remote portions of the globe.

"I thought it would be a very good program for us to tackle in Rotary," Athenour said. "We've done about two containers a year."

Each container holds 280 wheelchairs. They are made in China -- simple and sturdy for rugged terrain and easy maintenance -- and shipped directly to recipients in 152 countries.

"We've given away over 4,000 wheelchairs since we started," said Rotarian Dick Stafford. He has been on 10 distributions, and Athenour has been on all but one.

"We go to about seven locations in Mexico plus another six or seven countries in South and Central America," Stafford said, explaining that it's easier for Rotarians to join these distributions rather than travel to Asia or Africa. "And Bob Athenour, with his Spanish teaching background, helps us with the language situation."

"It's a life-changing experience," Stafford added. "You get the opportunity to see people achieve mobility that never had that opportunity before.

"It affects not only the person who actually gets the wheelchair but also family members," he continued. "We've seen mothers able to take care of kids in another way. It's life changing for those people -- and for those who've gone on the trips as well."

A number of organizations partner with the Wheelchair Foundation, he explained, but Rotary is ideal because it already has a global network through Rotary International, whose members find and approve the wheelchair recipients. The local Rotary members organize a distribution in the main plaza and then may help the visiting Rotarians deliver wheelchairs farther afield.

"Our last distribution was in Bolivia. One afternoon we went to five little communities in the outskirts of towns in pickup trucks and vans," Stafford said. "In each location there was a small rotary club that maybe distributed 20 chairs. That was the main event."

The people bring their handicapped loved ones to the distribution any way they can. Some arrive in old dilapidated wheelchairs.

"In Peru a woman was being carried in blankets," Stafford said. "The thing that really impresses me is seeing so many young girls that have children with birth defects -- that's going to be their whole lives to care for that child. They go from carrying them on their backs or on a homebuilt scooter kind of thing. It really allows them mobility."

"We were in Lima, Peru, walking in the city on a main street, three of us had rotary shirts on, and we passed a woman with a baby in a wheelchair," Stafford remembered. "We said, 'It looks like one of our chairs,' then she recognized the Rotary logo and was so excited. She had received her wheelchair some three years earlier so was able to get married and have a baby. It gave her the chance to be the mom she wanted to be and to be out downtown."

Another woman said in her gratitude, "For the first time, I can go to church."

Stafford said recipients may be apprehensive about the new apparatus.

"Some have never seen a wheelchair before," he said. "In one case someone was brought in who had no limbs and was put in the chair. Then as they were leaving, they wanted to carry the person again. We said, 'No, this is how this works.'"

The Rotarians who accompany the distributions pay their own expenses.

"There's no overhead for us. Every dollar is used in a productive way," Stafford said. "If there's a disappointment it's that we're treating the symptoms and not the cause. A lot of it is due to lack of prenatal care, a lack of nutrition, education. There never seems to be a lack of need."

Despite the time and money required, Pleasanton Rotary members travel to each of its distributions.

"It shows our support to the people receiving them, and it also gives an experience to our members, and they come back fired up," Stafford said, which inspires them to spread the word and raise more donations.

"It's a community effort, the way we've approached it," he continued, explaining how they raise money to buy the wheelchairs as well as provide matching funds. "We work with companies, associations, schools, individuals. We just want to spread the word and make it as easy as possible for people to get involved."

Each chair costs $150 but each chair through the Rotary Club of Pleasanton usually is $75 thanks to matching funds, and sometimes it is lower.

Rotarian Bob Silva has a powerpoint presentation that tells the story of Pleasanton Rotary's involvement with the Wheelchair Foundation. He's been on seven trips himself and appreciates the cultural lessons. One included landing an airplane at 12,000 feet on a short runway to reach a village in Peru.

"The people up there are mainly indigenous people," Silva said. "There's a very large need. Some are young, some old."

Rotarian Nancy Pennell, a critical care nurse, wrote about her trip to Bolivia:

"The roads between the cities and up into the mountains are only about 1/2 paved with giant speed bumps and lots of deep potholes and the other half is dirt roads with potholes and parts of the roads washing away. It was hard to stay calm while looking out the window of the van and seeing very little between your auto and the areas where the road is almost not there and the 1,000-plus feet below that you could so easily tumble down."

She also recounted the gratitude of wheelchair recipients and their families in the mountain towns. "There are always tears down some of the faces."

Each container of wheelchairs cost $42,000 and the 90 members of Pleasanton Rotary work hard to raise the money, said board member Todd Utikal.

"I've been the club auctioneer, and we auctioned off a wheelchair at random," Utikal said. "We raised $6,000 at one lunch. We'd been raising money for a container but were short about $4,000-$5,000."

The club is currently trying to raise $21,000 by Easter, he said, adding, "It's a daunting task."

Pleasanton Rotary also reaches out to remote areas with its dental, medical and vision care as well as Rotoplast, another worldwide project, which provides reconstructive surgery for cleft lips and palates. Rotarians have long worked internationally to eradicate polio, and locally to provide scholarships. And more Rotary clubs are joining forces with the Wheelchair Foundation.

"It's a very gratifying experience for those of us who have gone on those trips," Athenour said. "It's really an eye opener to see what the real world is like, where the needs are. The needs are there -- that is what has kept us going."

Gift of mobility

Give a gift to a loved one by buying a wheelchair in their name through the Rotary Club of Pleasanton. It takes a $75 donation since the Rotarians find matching donors to meet the total cost of $150 per chair. They also provide a certificate that includes a photo of someone receiving a chair, a nice way to illustrate a gift if you buy it in someone else's name. Go to www.PleasantonRotary.org or call Dick Stafford at 351-8860.

Worldwide need

It is estimated that at least 100 million children, teens and adults worldwide need a wheelchair but cannot afford one. Some international organizations believe that the number could be as high as 6% of the population of developing countries. The number in Angola is 20% of its population of 12 million people. Other "landmine" countries such as Afghanistan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Bosnia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone and Mozambique have extremely high physical disability rates.

--Wheelchair Foundation

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