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Mobile blessings

The gift of transport breaks down cultural and political barriers


Schoendorfer (center) delivers the goods in Vietnam.

Mobile blessings
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Larry Remp is a businessman from Ohio. His friend, Nguyen Hoang Vu, is a former underground pastor in Vietnam. Last November, communist officials in the Vietnamese city of Nha Trang shocked both men when they publicly acknowledged Vu's existence as a Christian pastor. Just a few years prior, Vu had faced imprisonment for preaching the gospel.

"It was incredible," said Remp, who has been traveling to Vietnam for 18 years to support His Place, the once-secret theological training facility that he and Vu established in 1990. What prompted the acknowledgment of God in a country with a history of repressing religion? A 40-foot shipping container full of odd-looking wheelchairs.

The wheelchairs came from Free Wheelchair Mission (FWM), a $5.4 million nonprofit charity based in Irvine, Calif., that manufactures simple but rugged wheelchairs for less than $50 each.

Since its founding in 2001, the group has sent more than 300,000 wheelchairs to 76 countries, including ones as troubled as Afghanistan, Cuba, Kazakhstan, Malawi, Nepal, Sudan, and Uzbekistan.

During the November wheelchair distribution ceremony in Nha Trang, a coastal city about midway between Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang, officials thanked Remp and his crew of volunteers. They also thanked Vu, FWM, and the Wheeling, W.Va., Vineyard Church, which raised $115,000 for the wheelchairs. Remp recalls, "We were able to share that the wheelchairs were a gift from God."

FWM founder and wheelchair inventor Don Schoendorfer, a shy, wiry man with a bushy gray mustache, was present at the Nha Trang ceremony. He was thrilled at the official response but not surprised. He has seen his device roll over political and cultural barriers before: "A mission group often can't just walk in and help-however, if they have a bunch of wheelchairs, all of a sudden the doors open. They call to talk to the mayor and talk about the wheelchair donation-and they get respect. Then they can go in and identify needs and save lives."

The seeds for Schoendorfer's $50 wheelchair were planted 30 years ago when, during a trip to Morocco, he and his wife Laurie saw beggars lining a road: "Between the legs of the beggars . . . was this woman trying to get across the road. Literally dragging herself. With one arm. Her clothes were torn and she's bleeding and she's filthy and she just wants to get across the road. We didn't know what to do. All we could do was turn around and look the other way."

But the vision of the Moroccan paraplegic clawing her way through life-a common sight in many developing countries-haunted the couple for three decades. During that span, Schoendorfer earned a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from MIT and found success in the biomedical industry. The couple raised three daughters in southern California. They went to church.

Yet something nagged at Schoendorfer: "I got very good at being the guy in the back room, the inventor. So I'd work for one company, and we would become successful at the expense of another company. But after 25 years, was anyone going to care about what I'd invented?"

Recalling the Moroccan woman, Schoendorfer started to experiment. He wanted to craft a durable and cheap wheelchair, something that could be pushed along dirt roads, up rocky paths, through muddy trails-anywhere the poorest of the poor lived. For months during 1998 and 1999 he tinkered in his garage during the early hours before leaving for work. Eventually he hit upon the idea of using the ubiquitous molded plastic patio chair, the kind you can buy at Home Depot. In fact, that's where he got his first one. It was waterproof and washable, sturdy and relatively comfortable.

What about wheels? Again, Schoendorfer went the simple route: Toys R Us inflatable bike tires. At first he used narrow tires. Then he settled on tires made for mountain bikes. Since 2000, Schoendorfer has tweaked his original model a bit, but the basic idea has remained unchanged.

FWM mixes its unique concept with an efficient production and distribution method that keeps costs very low. First, the wheelchair design uses components already produced in high volume, from the plastic chair down to the nuts and bolts. Second, the components are packed and shipped from two factories in China, where labor is inexpensive.

Each wheelchair comes in a kit that takes about 30 minutes to assemble: a steel frame, two mountain-bike tires, front casters plus hardware, and a resin patio chair. At the Chinese factories, the kits are packed into 40-foot shipping containers, each holding 550 kits. The containers are shipped to the international port most accessible by FWM partners: Churches, mission groups, relief agencies, and other NGOs already established in developing countries handle customs, transportation, set-up, and distribution of the wheelchairs.

Using in-place distribution partners cuts costs and means FWM can avoid entanglements with local governments and also skip maintaining a foreign staff. (The Irvine headquarters has a full-time staff of only 13.)

The waiting list of partners requesting wheelchair kits is long, said Schoendorfer. The holdup is funding: FWM is almost completely dependent upon donations and grants. Last summer Schoendorfer, with fellow board member and medical officer Michael Bayer and others, completed a six-week, 3,500-mile cross-country bike ride to raise funds and awareness. The effort is paying off. Schoendorfer said donations in 2007 were up 45 percent over the year before. In 2007, the mission shipped 83,350 wheelchairs, 53,000 more than in 2006.

This year FWM is going on the road again, but in a 40-foot truck (stocked with assembled wheelchairs and promotional material) that will make stops across the country through June 30 for events like Rotary breakfasts, church picnics, and city-wide barbecues. One city is hosting a race among pastors, using the wheelchairs.

While FWM is largely unknown in the United States outside the West Coast, it is slowly gaining recognition for its unique idea: On March 25, Schoendorfer was one of three people to receive a civilian Medal of Honor, called the Above & Beyond Citizen Honors. More important to Schoendorfer, though, is that each wheelchair FWM ships opens a door that otherwise might get slammed shut.

Lately the charity has shipped (as of February) a total of 14,525 wheelchairs to the military for distribution to needy Iraqis. U.S. Army Captain Colin J. McElroy, a civil affairs advisor stationed with the 3rd Iraqi Army Division in al-Kasik, told Schoendorfer in a note: "I can't stress enough, how much [the wheelchairs] improve operations in our area."

Schoendorfer said a wheelchair has a profound effect on each recipient. "It's not for just a day or a little while. In many cases it's for the rest of their life." FWM's goal is to distribute 20 million wheelchairs in the world's developing countries, but Schoendorfer is optimistic regardless of the numbers: "There's no way we can fail at this, because every wheelchair is a success."

-Anita Palmer is a freelance writer based in La Mesa, Calif.

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