Features

Mobile blessings

"Mobile blessings" Continued...

Issue: "Return of the Lion," May 17, 2008

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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