Delivering Mobility with Free Wheelchairs

In America, you’d be shocked to see a disabled person dragging herself on the ground wearing flip-flops on her hands.

But, for millions in underdeveloped countries, that’s reality. The goal of Free Wheelchair Mission (FWM) is to change that reality.

Founded in 2001 in Irvine, Calif. by MIT PhD. Don Schoendorfer, the organization delivers wheelchairs to disabled people worldwide. Schoendorfer and his wife were so moved after seeing disabled without wheelchairs on a vacation in Morocco that he came home and patented a wheelchair made from stackable plastic lawn chairs, mountain bike wheels and a metal frame. These economical components have allowed FWM to reach 77 underdeveloped countries to date.

FWM’s Chicago chapter was launched in 2007 by Deerfield resident Laurie Rosin. Since then, the chapter has funded 1,650 wheelchairs for physically disabled in Vietnam, Ecuador, and Chile. Their third annual fundraiser, Magic of Mobility, was held at Ravinia Green Country Club in March and raised $100,000. Some 450 attendees and each paid $59.20 (the price of one wheelchair) for a night of fun which included a speech from Private Practice actor Michael Thorton and a silent and live auction. Up for grabs: tickets to The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Saturday Night Live, and the NFL Draft. And a puppy as well!

“There are over 200 million people still waiting to be lifted up, and that’s why we can never do enough. There is so much need,” says Rosin. “This past year we were able to secure some sponsorship, United Stationers, which is a Deerfield-based company. That’s what also enabled us to be able to charge $59.20, and to be able to say, [when] you walk in, you’re buying a chair. The event was covered by that sponsorship,” says Rosin.

The group has two trips planned, to Costa Rica in November and to India in early 2012.

Marci Barth, a FWM Chicago committee member, went on the last mission to Chile in 2010. The group distributed wheelchairs directly to people’s homes.

“When we leave these missions, nothing feels better,”  she says. “You just are filled up with how you can change people’s lives, and how you can feel their gratitude.”

Chile also presented the opportunity to test a new wheelchair prototype, called the GEN_2.

“The idea for GEN_2 is that it can be adjusted for size. The little children can be more confined, and then the bigger people who maybe wouldn’t fit in the chairs, this can be adjusted for them as well,” says Rosin.

Besides attending events, North Shore residents can donate to the Free Wheelchair Mission Chicago directly on its website.

Their next fundraising event is planned for October 2012.

Lead photo: Members of Free Wheelchair Mission Chicago chapter present a wheelchair to 13 year old Phillipe of Vina del Mar, Chile. Pictured are Deerfield residents: Marci Barth, Laurie Rosin, Jill Klein, Tracey Sachs, Linda Ragins, Terri Winter.