Making the World Mobile
In December 2007, Dr. Don Schoendorfer received a key to the City of Wheeling in recognition of his work in opening the hearts of many West Virginians and changing the lives of thousands around the world.
Schoendorfer, a mechanical engineer, was given the key in honor of his continued humanitarian work through Free Wheelchair Mission, a nonprofit organization that provides low-cost wheelchairs to disabled individuals in developing countries around the world at no cost to the recipient.
Since Schoendorfer's initial visit to West Virginia in May 2007, the people of West Virginia have lifted more than 11,000 people off the ground and provided them the life changing gift of mobility. Today, Free Wheelchair Mission, headquartered in Irvine, CA, has its first and only satellite office on National Road in Wheeling, WV.
Years ago, Don and Laurie Schoendorfer were vacationing in Morocco when they witnessed the plight of a disabled woman struggling to drag herself across a dirt road. Ignored by the crowds and barely evading traffic, the woman's hardship left an indelible impression on the couple.
Upon returning to southern California, Schoendorfer, an inventor by trade, began researching the global dilemma of disability in developing countries. Soon thereafter, he developed a durable, safe and inexpensive wheelchair and walked away from a successful career to found Free Wheelchair Mission (FWM).
Each FWM wheelchair costs only $59.20 to manufacture and deliver to some of the most remote corners of the globe. Through FWM's tireless efforts, each wheelchair is provided at absolutely no cost to the recipient.
In developing nations where poverty and economic isolation are the norm, it is estimated that 100 million people need a wheelchair but cannot afford one. Already suffering with the pain and exclusion that comes with a physical disability, many of these people endure further burdens on a daily basis. Some are forced to crawl on the ground or wait to be carried by loved ones to reach their basic needs. They are subjected to danger and disease. Safety nets are few and available social services are scarce.
West Virginia Responds
While watching Good Morning America one morning in 2007, Chris Figaretti of Wheeling found himself instantly moved by Free Wheelchair Mission. Schoendorfer was interviewed on the television segment while he and a team of supporters were cycling across the country to raise money for wheelchairs.
"These are people who were being a blessing in a huge way, and I wanted to meet them and cheer them on. A week later, they rolled into Wheeling and spoke at my church," says Figarerti.
That weekend visit gave Free Wheelchair Mission the momentum to continue their tour. In one weekend, people from West Virginia's Northern Panhandle gave $110,000 after hearing there were 100 million people worldwide in need of mobility. Soon after, Figaretti joined othet volunteers from Wheeling to travel to Vietnam to distribute wheelchairs.
"One of the greatest privileges and most humbling things you can do is pick someone up who has been stuck on the ground for years and place them in their own new wheelchair. It changes their life - and your life - instantly," says Figaretti .
In the fall of 2009, Free Wheelchair Mission opened its only satellite office in Wheeling. Wendy Scatterday, the Ohio Valley coordinator for Free Wheelchair Mission, says she is moved by the outpouring of response from West Virginians.
"We are blessed to have so many people in the Ohio Valley who not only welcome us but who also donate their valuable time to help this organization fulfill its valuable mission getting disabled people in developing countries off the ground and into a free wheelchair," says Scatterday.
Free Wheelchair Mission chose West Virginia to host a satellite office because of the people's overwhelming generosity.
"When you consider the population and per capita income of our state compared to larger markers," Scatterday goes on to say, "West Virginia's giving far exceeds any expectation set. It's truly a testament to the Mountaineer spirit."
On September 11, 2010, Free Wheelchair Mission hosted a Run, Walk and Roll Race followed by a massive potluck event in hopes of breaking the world record for world's biggest potluck event. The inaugural outing set the stage for a future possible record-breaking turnout at what will now be an annual event.
"We tried to show the world that the Ohio Valley is the kindest community on Earth, and our team of more than 100 volunteers demonstrated this kindness," says Scatterday.
"Throughout the past year, the Ohio Valley community has participated in various projects and events that supported Free Wheelchair Mission, and in turn, people in the Ohio Valley have lifted nearly 5,000 people off the ground in underdeveloped countries around the world."
By Jessica James Zatezalo
Photography by Free Wheelchair Mission