Article By Jody Morgan of the Alamo Today & Danville Today News
The Wheelchair Foundation, officially established by Ken Behring on June 13, 2000 (his 72nd birthday), has delivered 1,107,349 wheelchairs free of charge to individuals worldwide in over 155 countries who have no means of affording the wheelchair they need. In developing countries, an estimated 90% of children, teens, and adults who require a wheelchair are unable to acquire one. From the Heart, the Wheelchair Foundation’s schools program launched in 2012 by Don Routh, Josh Routh, and Bill Wheeler, introduces students in Tri-Valley schools firsthand to the enabling power of a wheelchair and connects them personally through letters and photographs to wheelchair recipients in Latin America whose lives have been positively impacted by their fundraising efforts. The gift of mobility spreads life-liberating benefits like ripples in a pond to family, friends, and caregivers multiplying the effect of each one delivered tenfold.
Raised during the Depression in a home with no hot water or central heat, Behring thought he knew what poverty was like until he began traveling to Africa in the 1990s. Taken to hospitals with inadequate medical supplies sometimes so overcrowded patients had to lie on the floor and schools that had no books and barely provided shelter, Behring responded by stocking his plane with human-itarian supplies each time he returned. In 1999, six wheelchairs destined for a hospital in Romania filled out the cargo of 15 tons of canned meat gathered by LDS Charities for delivery to refugees.
In Road to Purpose, Behring writes: “Little did I know that these six wheelchairs would alter the direction of my life.” One elderly stroke victim exclaimed after Ken helped settle him in his new wheelchair, “Now I can go outside in my yard and smoke with my neighbors.” Ken took to heart the lesson he learned that day. “I had previously seen wheelchairs as a form of confinement. I didn’t comprehend the liberation that one could bring to those who are unable to afford them.” Trips to Vietnam and Guatemala in early 2000 confirmed the enormous need and inspired Behring to address it. One Guatemalan girl only six or seven years old spent her days sitting in a box while her parents worked. Behring writes: “When we gave her a wheelchair, the mother was incredibly grateful. She told us that for the first time, her child would be able to move around the house. It would allow her to go to school and receive an education. No longer would she be confined to a box. She would have a future.”
An essential part of the message From the Heart brings to local schools is that wheel-chairs are a source of opportunity rather than limitation and that wheelchair users are enabled rather than disabled by their means of achieving mobility. Josh Routh takes the lead in demonstrating the point. Born with Cerebral Palsy, Josh is skilled at propelling his wheelchair in basketball competitions, to work, as a volunteer at School of the Imagination in Dublin, and throughout Latin America on Wheelchair Foundation distribution trips to remote villages with dad Don and amigo Bill.
Wheelchair Foundation Community Outreach Director Barbara Bosse partners with Josh at school assemblies.“I like to refer to Josh as my secret weapon,” she says. “He has a unique way of connecting with students and teachers alike. He demonstrates to students how he gets in and out of his wheelchair, how he can shoot hoops, and how he is also very comfortable answering all of their questions no matter how awkward they may seem. On one occasion, a little girl said, ‘I feel sorry for you.’ Josh replied, ‘Don’t feel sorry for me. I can do amazing things because I have this wheelchair.’” Schools interested in taking advantage of the program are encouraged to tailor it to their needs. Bosse explains, “As a teacher myself, I understand how difficult it is to ask teachers to add one more thing to their already full calendars. I like to impress upon prospective schools, ‘How can we make the program work for you?’ I emphasize the flexibility of our program and the many ways it can be tailored to fit each school’s needs.”
Black Tie Transportation founder Bill Wheeler donates delivery of wheelchairs to schools for students to experience what an hour or a day in a wheelchair is like. One middle school student wrote: “From this experience I learned that people treat you a whole lot different when you’re in a wheelchair. People treated me at two extremes. They either cared for me and did everything they absolutely could or they took advantage of me, used me as a racecar, or pushed me as fast as they could, even as I yelled for them to stop.”
Fundraising for wheelchair deliveries is included as an aspect of the program. Some teachers use the project to emphasize math. Others ask students to write to community organizations or visit them in person to hone their communication skills. The top fundraiser is Lydikesen School in Pleasanton. Strong supporters in SRVUSD include Tassajara Hills, Montair, Hidden Hills, Diablo Vista, Windermere Ranch, Pine Valley, Dougherty Valley High, Monte Vista and San Ramon Valley High. Some teachers and students join the summer wheelchair delivery teams to Latin America. This July’s Columbia journey accomplished seven distributions in five days, including one home visit. Personal connections underscore their achievement for every educator and student involved in From the Heart. Bosse notes: “Students are asked to write letters in Spanish that are then given to each wheelchair recipient on a distribution trip. In return, the student receives a reply in the form of a handwritten letter from the person and/or the family receiving the gift of a wheelchair. The personal connec-tion between our students participating in letter writing and the recipients of the wheelchair helps demonstrate that a little effort on the student’s part makes a huge difference in the lives of others.”