Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Nebraska man gets wheelchairs into the hands of Guatemalans in need

From The Independent in Grand Island, Nebraska:

Del Friesen doesn’t speak Spanish, but words weren’t necessary when it came to fitting people in Guatemala with wheelchairs. (He's pictured left in the photo.)

“The parents were very grateful,” he said. “You could see the excitement in their faces.”

One young boy with cerebral palsy couldn’t quit smiling as Friesen and other volunteers with Wheels for the World helped prepare a wheelchair for him.

Friesen, an occupational therapist at Grand Island Physical Therapy, traveled to Guatemala April 30 and stayed until May 7 with a group of nine Wheels for the World volunteers.

Wheels for the World is an outreach program that aims to meet the physical and spiritual needs of disabled people around the world by providing them with wheelchairs, walkers or crutches. According to the organization’s Web site, the group planned to have 52,342 wheelchairs distributed in 102 countries in 2008.

Friesen first got involved with the group four or five years ago after hearing a radio commercial. A man was doing a drive in the area for wheelchairs, walkers and crutches and Friesen felt he had knowledge he could share about the equipment. He enjoyed the work but was “anxious to see the other end of it,” so he made plans to travel to Guatemala. He was able to make the trip with financial support from Third City Christian Church, where he is a member.

Wheels for the World partnered with Bethel Ministries, a group that does work in Guatemala year round, to contact those in need of assistance. They used Guatemala City as a base and traveled to four other towns to distribute the wheelchairs. In two of the towns, the mayors came to greet them and ceremonies, complete with the singing of the Guatemalan national anthem, were held, he said.

“We were well received,” he said.

During his weeklong visit, 236 children and adults — the oldest was 102 — received chairs. The people suffered from a number of ailments such as cerebral palsy and spinal cord injuries from traffic accidents, Friesen said.

“A lot of the kids didn’t have a chair until now,” he said.

The equipment is collected in drives throughout the U.S. and sent to various prisons that have refurbishing programs. The items are then sent to shipping locations to go overseas, he said. Most of the things that are donated come from people who no longer need the equipment or from family members after the user has passed away, he said.

Pediatric wheelchairs are particularly valuable, as are older, worn chairs that can be taken apart and used for parts. The majority of the wheelchairs that are distributed are manual ones, since parts and services for motorized chairs can be hard to come by in Third World countries, he said.

Friesen said the first person he assisted during his trip was a child who had difficulty bending because of problems with his hips and knees. The fitting, which took four hours, was challenging and overwhelming, but very rewarding, he said.

The experience was amazing, he said, and gave him a chance to try to grasp what life is like for people who aren’t very mobile. Some of the people who received wheelchairs had stayed in bed all day or were unable to attend school prior to getting a chair, he said.

“This gives them other opportunities,” he said. “That’s a big motivator for the organization.”

He added that sharing the word of God is also a major part of the work.

“(We) can show them that God is interested in them as a person,” he said.