February 1, 2004

Deirdre Newman, Daily Pilot
Newport Beach woman says wheelchairs taken to Fiji are like a "miracle under a mango tree" to the poor and disabled living on its islands.

For 2 1/2 years, two boys from Prem Kumar's village in Fiji would carry him every morning from his bed to a nearby bench under a mango tree. And for two years, every evening, the two boys would carry the paralyzed man back from the bench to his bed.

And so it went, day after day — until earlier this month, when Susan Shaw and her team of volunteers got lost and ended up in front of his house.

They were in Fiji to deliver wheelchairs through the Free Wheelchair Mission. Kumar wasn't on their list, but because of the wrong turn, they discovered he could use one.

"We changed his life just like that," Shaw said. "It was a miracle under a mango tree."

This is Shaw's seventh trip to Fiji. Some have been for business with her company, Divegear, which specializes in clothing for the scuba diving industry; the rest have been to deliver wheelchairs. She was inspired to volunteer with the mission in 2001 after seeing one of the wheelchairs outside of her church.

The wheelchairs are designed with the minimalist attitude that a simple chair on wheels that can be made for $40 or less is all that's needed. All it took was a patio chair with mountain bike tires.

The Newport Coast resident found her calling as a volunteer, deciding she wanted to help Don Schoendorfer, founder and president of the Free Wheelchair Mission, in his efforts. She wanted to start helping the disabled poor in an area of the world she was familiar with through her business travels — Fiji.

Her goal is to make sure that everyone who needs a wheelchair in Fiji has one. She estimates 10,000 people on the various islands of Fiji need them. So far, she has raised funds for about 1,100 wheelchairs. 

Shaw brings containers of 550 wheelchairs to the country. Before containers are shipped, Shaw usually has to raise $22,000. For this trip, she had only raised half of that amount before she left.

Shaw left Orange County on Jan. 12 for a week in Fiji. Traveling with her was Cal Wadsworth of Salt Lake City and his daughter, Kalie, who is in college in Oregon. Schoendorfer connected Wadsworth with Shaw after Wadsworth expressed interest in helping out with the mission. He contributed $10,000 to the effort and then decided he wanted to help distribute the wheelchairs himself.

Wadsworth said he was impressed by Shaw's energetic commitment to the people of Fiji.

"She's almost an icon, if you will, on the island," Wadsworth said. "Everywhere we went, she was recognized by the Fijian people. They would walk up to us and say, 'Wheelchairs, Susan'."

The day the volunteers landed in Viti Levu, the main island, they were whisked to a press conference put on by the Satya Sai Organization, which helped store, assemble and distribute the chairs. There was already a waiting list of 250 recipients and the press conference enabled her to spread the word quickly to the entire country that the wheelchairs were available.

Potential recipients had to go through a detailed process to get one. They filled out a card with their name, age, isability and confirmation that they couldn't afford to buy a wheelchair. One of Shaw's friends, who owns a business in Fiji, set up a database to track every potential recipient. When the Satya Sai Organization receives the forms, they go out into the villages and do assessments to make sure the need is valid, Shaw said.

"These aren't just chairs that are indiscriminately given out," Shaw said. Shaw and her team try to visit the more remote outlying and interior areas because that's where the need is the greatest, she said. After the press conference, the volunteers headed to the remote interior of Viti Levu to distribute a wheelchair to Elenoa, 63, who is paralyzed. The elderly Fijian woman was sitting on a mat in the doorway of her shack, waiting patiently.

"She crawled to [the wheelchair]," Shaw said. "Then she started rolling herself. She was so excited."

Most of the people who are paralyzed or disabled in Fiji depend on relatives and neighbors to carry them everywhere they go. The wheelchairs liberate them and enable many to access people and places they've never seen, even if they're just a stone's throw away.

One of the next recipients they visited, also sitting in her doorstep waiting, was lifted into the chair and rolled across the grass to her family's house. It was the first time she had ever made the short trip, Shaw said.

"It just changes lives in so many ways that might seem small to us but are so huge to them," Shaw said.

Another day, the volunteers went to Sabeto Nadi to deliver a wheelchair to Babita Dutt, an 18-year-old with cerebral palsy. The tops of her feet were blackened with calluses from crawling for years.

"She won't have [the calluses] next year," Shaw said. "She's just exuberant."

The saddest situation occurred when the volunteers visited a woman in one of the poorer villages. They walked up the hill to deliver a wheelchair to a woman who had been locked inside a small room by her son when he went into town. The only way to communicate with the woman was through a small screen window.

"We left the wheelchair at her door," Shaw said. "She was crying and said, 'God bless you' in Fijian."

The people of Fiji are incredibly generous and the volunteers were constantly touched by their kindness, Shaw said.

Since the group was staying in the city of Nandi, they had to get to Latoka every day to deliver the wheelchairs. On one of their first few days, they hired a driver and every day after that, he would stay and build wheelchairs on his own time.

"The people want to find other people to help," Shaw said. "That's the nature of their kindness and that's why I'm taking them there first."

Now that she's back in Newport Coast, Shaw is hoping to raise the rest of the funds for the wheelchairs she just delivered, so she can start raising funds for the next container. She intends to accompany every container she takes to see the grateful look on the faces of people who are transformed by the gift of mobility, she said.

Her fervent dedication to enhancing the lives of Fijians is inspiring, Wadsworth said. "She appears to be 100% committed to seeing that every person in Fiji who has a need gets it fulfilled," he said. "She's high-energy, passionate, very outspoken. I think she's a pretty good leader in this endeavor — a leader not by barking out orders telling people what to do, but more by example, by her actions."  

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