The Gift of Mobility
By: Allison Meagher Paoli
Donald C. Kurth
March 09, 1944 - Nov. 17, 2009
We all have a story. Actually, we all have many stories; some are happy and some are not, some are of struggle and hardship, and some are inspirational stories of triumph. This narrative is a combination of each of these elements. It is my honor and privilege to tell the story of a man whose endeavor began before my days as a Rotarian, but whose legacy will continue on for those suffering with polio and other handicapping conditions around the globe. It is a story of true friendship that one man from the Lake Havasu City Rotary Club, AZ, took on in the name of a dear friend. It was Chuck Denney’s mission to make Don Kurth’s struggle and passing a victory and tribute for all who adored him; one man, even though deceased, has made a difference world-wide.
Don Kurth was born in March of 1944. At the age of 18 months, he was stricken with polio. Throughout the course of his life, Don needed an iron lung to help him breathe, braces for his legs allowing him to walk, crutches to lean on, and eventually, a wheelchair for freedom to move about. While many people would have allowed this disease to consume them, Don was not that type of man. He lived his life to the fullest. He was a loving and devoted husband to his wife Sandie, and a wonderful father to their three sons. Don was also an inspiration to his friends.
Everyday was an inconvenience for Don Kurth, but in the eyes of his peers, you would never know it. He was the Manager of the Reverse Mortgage Department of Wells Fargo Bank, and very good at his job; but what most of us would characterize as an hour or less “morning routine” typically took Don two and a half hours to accomplish. Every morning, Sandie would greet Don with a cup of coffee, and together they would work to prepare him for his day. On Mondays, Don went to the Lake Havasu City Rotary Club meetings where his friends would show up early, wait in the parking lot, and stay late to assist him with his wheelchair so he could attend the meetings; and they did so, happily! And although Don could have used a motorized wheelchair, it wasn’t what he wanted. His chair was simple, and gave him the freedom he needed with just the right amount of independence to meet each day.
On the morning of November 17, 2009, Sandie Kurth went to wake her husband, only to find that Don had passed away in his sleep.
Donald C. Kurth was a Paul Harris Fellow of Rotary International and a Rotary Foundation Benefactor. Kurth’s family requested that the Lake Havasu City Rotary Club preside over his memorial, and they did, with heavy hearts in memory of a friend and fellow Rotarian. Like all of us, there are people who touch our lives in ways that motivate us to commemorate them through acts of good will. For Chuck Denney, Don Kurth was that person.
Denney, a lifelong Rotarian, had been on two life-changing trips internationally with Rotary. In 2004, Denney went with a group to Cairo, Egypt where they actually placed drops of the polio vaccine on the tongues of infants on National Immunization Day. National Immunization Day allows Rotarians to enter countries for vaccination distribution where there is typically civil unrest. They are protected by local military while trying to help the country’s people. In 2005, Denney went to Mexico with Rotary International to distribute new wheelchairs to people in need. Having had these two incredible humanitarian experiences brought R.I.’s polio and wheelchair causes near and dear to his heart. Over the years, Denney recalled these experiences, and has said, “There is nothing in the world like the feeling you get from putting drops of vaccine on the tongue of a baby, or the joy of picking up a person who can’t stand or walk, and placing them into a brand new wheelchair. It is unlike anything I’ve ever felt.”
The sadness that Denney felt after Kurth’s passing gave him a new energy about the two causes that he personally thought were of high importance as a Rotarian. Whether a person was constrained to a wheelchair because of polio, or for some other crippling circumstance, Chuck Denney witnessed the value of the wheelchair through the eyes of Don, and became determined to remember him by raising money to buy and distribute wheelchairs, just like the one Kurth used.
Sandy Kurth, widow of Rotarian Don Kurth, gives Chuck Denney an extra push forward beside Lake Havasu City, Arizona's famed London Bridge.
Jeannie Morgan, District Governor of 5490, appointed Denney to become the “Wheelchair Chairperson” for a period of two years in 2009. Denney researched and found a company who could supply wheelchairs for roughly $125 per chair, give or take. It is the policy of the Rotary Foundation to fund matching grants, so Denney decided the best way to go about raising money for his project was to ask individual contributors to sponsor a wheelchair for about half the total cost.
In February of 2010, during a weekly meeting at the Lake Havasu City Rotary Club, Denney persuaded every member of the club to stand up and donate for wheelchairs. The unanimous reaction gave him the momentum to go to the other two Rotary Clubs in Lake Havasu City, AZ and ask for additional donations. The response to his request continued to be overwhelming; therefore, Denney took his pursuit throughout District 5490. During this time, Denney learned that Jon B. Grant, PDG, in Foster City, CA, was coordinating wheelchair money from his region. We all know the expression: when it rains, it pours… well, when Denney’s fundraising was initiated, the goal was to raise enough money to buy 280 wheelchairs, or one container, but with the help of Jon B. Grant, PDG, George Wheeler, PDG, “Chairman of the District Foundation Grant Program,” District Governor Jeanie Morgan, and Charlie Tegarden, PDG, what was once a “slight drizzle” turned into a “downpour” in wheelchair resources. Collectively, they were able to find wheelchair-designated funds from Rotary Clubs in California and Arizona. With the collaboration and effort of these five dedicated people, along with donation collections and funds previously allocated for wheelchairs, what was once the goal of raising enough money to buy 280 chairs for Mexico, turned into enough money to purchase 2800 wheelchairs that would be distributed all over the globe.
Denney is so grateful to the Lake Havasu City Rotary Club for stepping up to sponsor his endeavor on behalf of Don Kurth. That February day, when the club stood up unanimously, marked the beginning of an incredible journey that would bestow thousands of physically challenged people, along with their devoted caregivers (people like Sandie Kurth), with an increased quality of life.
The details and the passion in this story are far more powerful when told by Denney himself; his undertaking has been a gift of mobility for thousands! It started with a deep level of friendship between two people and the mutual admiration they shared. It transpired because of who Don Kurth was to his fellow Rotarians, and perhaps the most extraordinary part of the story is… that Denney and fellow District 5490 Rotarians were on their way to Puebla, Mexico to deliver the first container of wheelchairs, the week of November 17, 2010; exactly a year from the death of a beloved friend, to indeed, celebrate his life.
Photos courtesy Rotary District 5490.