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The following story was written by Jody Morgan of Alamo Today & Danville Today News. The original article can be found here.

The Wheelchair Foundation recently completed a third distribution trip to Vietnam with several members of the Viet Nam Veterans of Diablo Valley (VNVDV) taking the opportunity to return for the first time to places where they served during the Vietnam War. The mission brought the gift of mobility to 500 individuals of all ages and renewed hope to their caregivers and families. The journey enabled veterans to deliver tangible measures of good to a country where they once were tasked with disseminating destruction.

Dennis Giacovelli served in the Mekong Delta region in 1970 on Navy gunboats called PBR and STABs. During a reunion with his boat group, he described his plans to go back to Vietnam with the Wheelchair Foundation. He reports, “Their reaction was of surprise, shock, and disbelief that I would even consider returning.” Their response dampened his enthusiasm, but prior to embarking he says, “Hopefully, I will see this as a wonderful vacation with a heavy dose of giving back to those in need. I am sure the idea that we were the ones who caused these ailments and that the wheelchairs are a ‘drop in the bucket’ will be ever-present.”

Gary Pforr served in the Northern I Corps 1969, 1970, and 1971. Before leaving on the Wheelchair Foundation trip, he comments, “Despite my apprehension about seeing old places, it’s kind of a compulsive desire. Veterans’ and civilians’ memories of those times and places and events are not healed or closed – they’re managed.”

Joe Calloway’s 2004 book Mekong First Light describes coming of age in the process of going from Private to Captain in three years and serving as an infantry platoon leader in Vietnam, Queens Cobra advisor to two Thai Infantry companies, and in the 5th Special Forces Base Camp Defense and Special Projects. Asked what motivated him to travel back with the Wheelchair Foundation, he writes, “Doing something constructive and helpful for a country where we did so much damage is why I’m going. Healing and closure is a myth… going there is not going to eliminate the horrible experiences and memories.”

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David Behring talks with Vietnamese orphanage teacher fluent in English.
She was disabled as a child. Photo courtesy of Wheelchair Foundation.

Enthusiastic accounts by VNVDV members who traveled on previous Wheelchair Foundation Vietnam tours encouraged members to overcome their misgivings. Jerry Yahiro, VNVDV Past-President, spoke in a 2015 the positive effect of going back twice on wheelchair distribution trips. “Prior to 2006 and 2012, about every day something would remind me of Vietnam. Now, I can go days without thinking about Vietnam, however, it is still there.” He noted, “The Vietnamese have accommodated better. To them, it was a war of independence. They differentiate individuals from politics.”

Wheelchair Foundation President David Behring orchestrated the trip to alternate wheelchair distributions with orphanage visits, provide time to revisit historic sites, and leave free time for relaxation. The itinerary included a dinner that brought veterans from opposing sides together in an evening of harmonious exchanges of times remembered and events graciously dismissed. Although some of the 500 wheelchairs went to remote locations, the impact of giving 160 wheelchairs a day to grateful recipients unable to afford the means of moving about independently proved to be one of the most rewarding aspects of the journey for returning veterans as well as others in the group who did not serve in Vietnam.

Jon Robbins, who served in Vietnam in the Northern II Corps from August 1968-August 1969, was interested in seeing the country’s development in the last 50 years. He remarks, “You never learn unless you get into the people and their lives today.” The trip gave him a chance to learn directly from the staff at the orphanages visited their tremendous dedication and witness the lifestyle of the children they serve. He was greatly moved by the genuine gratitude expressed by wheelchair recipients as well as residents and staff at the orphanages.

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Jon Robbins with orphans in Hue City. Photo courtesy of Jon Robbins.

Jon writes, “In the City of Hue, at the Chuong Trinh orphanage, wheelchairs were distributed. On arrival, I met some young children who greeted me with their wonderful smiles. They sang and danced in a simple performance that was so rewarding to me. Later their stories were told. These children have received a new direction in life, and they show their gratitude without saying a word.”

The orphanages visited are all privately funded with no government support. Gary explains, “The 30-50 children located at the Children’s Shelter in Hue receive training to enable them to achieve self-sufficiency. The shelter is supported by the Friends of Hue Foundation, based in San Jose. Approximately 30-40 abandoned children living in the Ha Cau Orphanage in Hanoi attend public schooling during the day and are nurtured by 74-year-old Mrs. Tran Thuc Ninh, who is assisted by four dedicated caregivers.”

To the query on what he found most rewarding about the journey, Pforr responds, “Seeing the positive changes in a country that was once devastated by war was most rewarding to me as a Vietnam vet. Where undernourished grim-faced peasants in black pajamas once tilled their fields with water buffalo, healthy and vibrant hard-working people dressed in western attire are now engaged in mechanized agriculture as well as in a variety of commercial and industrial livelihoods. Red soil moonscape areas near the DMZ that were once pock-marked with shell holes are now under heavy agriculture.”

Calloway sees Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City, as “a vibrant dynamic society teeming with vigor and resourcefulness.” The people are youthful. Seventy percent of the country’s population was born after the war. Perhaps that accounts for their willingness to welcome the group of Americans. Joe explains, “It is incredible how these people have forgiven us for killing three million of its citizens, poisoning millions more, and then they just moved on with life. They seem to harbor no ill will or animosity whatsoever.” Joe, however, finds photographs of deformed infants with birth defects caused by the Agent Orange defoliant disbursed by American combatants an unforgettable reminder that damage done to the landscape continued to impact the people of Vietnam long after the war ended.

“It was a very sad and humbling experience. Many of these children are disabled they believe due to Agent Orange still left in the ground,” Calloway concludes concerning the first wheelchair distribution. Mothers brought children from remote locations. He estimates 500 people gathered to clap and cheer. The American contingent pushed each of the 160 wheelchair recipients individually out of the building. Pforr adds, “Despite Viet Nam’s widespread economic development and improved standard of living for most, it’s evident that many physically and mentally disabled persons, along with their parental caregivers, have been left behind and live in poverty.”

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Josh Routh (center) at Ha Cau Orphanage in Hanoi. Photo courtesy of Gary Pforr.

Veteran Wheelchair Foundation travelers Don and Josh Routh had never been to Vietnam. Born with Cerebral Palsy, Josh enjoys demonstrating how empowering a wheelchair can be. His father Don encourages parents of differentially-abled children, recounting how his perseverance enabled Josh to become an independent, highly productive adult rather than the quadriplegic incapable of speech his doctors originally envisioned. Impressed by reactions of Vietnam veterans to their first wheelchair distributions and orphanage visits, Don especially enjoyed witnessing their encounter with former enemies in Hue where some of the bloodiest fighting occurred during the 1968 Tet Offensive. “The dinner with Viet Cong Veterans was a surreal experience. It didn’t take long for barriers to break down and veterans from both sides to embrace a common theme of peace and fellowship.”

Calloway admits boundless beer consumption helped cement “deep-seated camaraderie and mutual respect” as the evening progressed. “It was indeed an inspirational and truly bonding experience for guys who were some 50 years ago trying to kill one another. There were no harbored grievances, angst, or hostility.” He continues, “I watched, engulfed in an event of overwhelming goodwill. Who would have thought this would evolve into such a raucous gathering of former enemies?”

Summing up the benefits of the journey, Joe writes, “Returning to a place where I brought so much destruction, structural and human damage, and then being able to participate 50 plus years later in events so positive with a group of admirable people so deep in compassion and character was truly inspirational and emotionally rewarding. A true field soldier will never find closure as combat life is too brutally mean-spirited and tragic, but one can find some relief in this mission as I did.”

For information about the Wheelchair Foundation, visit www.wheelchairfoundation.org. To learn more about the Viet Nam Veterans of Diablo Valley, visit www.vnvdv.org.

Join Wheelchair Foundation this Sunday, July 30th at

Stella’s Ristorante located at 3451 Blackhawk Plaza Rd. in Danville, California for

“Wheelchairs For Jalisco Dinner”

Call (925) 263 – 2112 for details and reservations

This story was written by Josh Burroughs  Chair, Silicon Valley Chapter of the Wheelchair Foundation, Wheelchair Ambassador, Rotary Club of San Jose

Gandhi said it best: “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

I can’t think of a better way to describe the feelings felt on our immersive wheelchair distribution in Monterrey, Mexico, a joint venture between the Rotary District 5170 (Bay Area) and the Silicon Valley Chapter of the Wheelchair Foundation. 

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Josh and members of the Rotary Districts 5160, 5170, 7090 and 5730 in Monterey Mexico during the delivery of 560 wheelchairs.

I had the honor of serving on this mission trip delivering 560 wheelchairs and participating in hands on service projects with our local Rotarian partners.  This life changing experience (now my 8th wheelchair distribution to date) continues to affect me as a constant reminder of the many blessings we have here in the states, and our obligation to reach outside comfort zones to share our gifts of time, talent and treasure with others.

What was equally inspiring was the sheer generosity of our donors towards this project.  In less than 8 months, starting with a modest challenge grant from the Silicon Valley Chapter and Rotary 5170 District Governor Susan Valenta, the campaign caught on like wildfire throughout the Bay Area Rotary Clubs – a huge outpouring of support from individuals, businesses, and foundations.  The fundraising campaign culminated with a grand reception at the Blackhawk Museum in Danville, where individual donors had a chance to meet Wheelchair Foundation founder, Ken Behring, who gave an inspiring speech in thanks for the continued support of Rotary International over the past 15 years.

Wheelchair recipients in Monterey MexicoThis tangible gift of mobility and its life changing impacts were sourced locally, and distributed globally, but the effects on the lives of the recipients can only be briefly documented through my experience delivering the chairs.  The true impact will be lifelong, and one in which entire family units are transformed.

Led by Rotary International Director Brad Howard, Rotary District 5170 Governor Susan Valenta, and District 5170 Governor Elect Jeff Orth, our 20 person team landed in Monterrey in April, 2016.  Building on a decade long partnership with the Monterrey Rotarians, the team divided into groups to serve the local communities. 

I personally participated in the renovation of the children’s library in Garcia, Nuevo Leon; swinging sledge hammers, painting, landscaping – the kids helped us out too, but they got more paint on themselves that on the walls! 

The primarily industrial city (think packaging and manufacturing of Mary Kay products, Kia Motors, etc) has an ever-increasing influx of migrants looking for work.  Very poor areas dealing with issues surrounding homelessness and housing juxtaposes an increased amount of new commercial development & construction in the downtown core.

Amid this changing landscape are the diverse stories of the individuals receiving mobility.  From children to adults, from birth defects to car accidents, the stories highlight the need for us to continue on this mission, and this is only the beginning!

Wheelchairs lined up for deliveryCheck back soon for a follow-up article on our 2nd Mission trip to Panama in October 2016 where we will be delivering another 560 wheelchairs in this Central American outpost.

…and Thank You again for all your support!

-Josh Burroughs

Chair, Silicon Valley Chapter of the Wheelchair Foundation

Wheelchair Ambassador, Rotary Club of San Jose

This article is redistributed in full and was originally written by Jan Zitek of the Madera Sunrise Rotary Club in Madera, CA.

Gingoog Rotarians with welcome banner.

Gingoog Rotarians with welcome banner.

Our Wheelchair Distribution by Rotary District 5220 began on March 7, 2016 from San Francisco with representatives from the Rotary Clubs of Escalon Sunrise, Madera Sunrise, Manteca, Sonora Sunrise, and Tracy Sunrise plus guests from Indiana, New York, Rotary spouses, and Friends of Rotary. We were joined by our District Governor Ellen Hancock. This is the culmination of much planning and fund raising spearheaded by Bob Bitter and Phil Benner. The wheelchair chairs are provided by The Wheelchair Foundation and a donation of $42,000 by the sponsoring group provides 260 wheelchairs and the shipment to the receiving country. All participants in the distribution team have provided the funds for at least one chair and the remaining funds are provided by other clubs in the district and miscellaneous contributions.

This is our first trip to the Philippines.  We have accompanied chairs to many countries in Central & South America.  Our partner Rotary Club is the Rotary Club of Gingoog, Philippines in District 3870.  It is the responsibility of this club to provide funds for receiving the chairs at the dock in Manila, transportation for the chairs to the distribution sites, coordinating & select-ing the recipients, and hosting the distributing per-sons.  There is a great deal of preplanning on both sides of the world to make this work and months of work and tons of emails exchange hands.  We were fortunate to have the help of two American Rotarians living in Gingoog, Ed Velarde & Luke Tynan, which helped Phil & Bob a whole lot.

The beginning of the distribution ceremony.

The beginning of the distribution ceremony.

Most of us traveled from San Francisco on March 7.  Our first 2 days was supposed to be spent on the island of Virac visiting the water project completed by District 5220.  Alas, for most of us this it was not to be as we arrived only after a hectic trip to the domestic terminal to find that our flight was closed and we were not going to Virac at all because there was not another flight until Friday!   However, the Ari-ans, Nazs, Dr. Simjee, & Dr. Muslim had arrived on a different flight and were on their way to Virac so we were represented.  Disappointed we transferred to the Remington Hotel which was recommended by the So-rianos for 2 extra nights in Manila.  We arranged with a local Past District Governor to send the school and craft supplies and medical equipment we had brought to Virac.  Disappointed we decided to make the most of our unplanned visit and went to the Oceanarium for the afternoon.  We learned a lot about the sea life and fresh water fish of the islands and got acclimated to the very humid and hot weather.  We learned quickly that you do not measure travel by distance but by the time it takes to get someplace.  For instance, the aquarium was approximately 8 kilometers from our hotel but the travel time was 40-45 minutes.

Back to the airport and we are finally united with our entire group and off to our destination of Gingoog City, Mindanao Island.  Of course, our flight was delayed.  Cebu Pacific was not our favorite airline at this point.  We were greeted with a large banner and very happy Rotarians who were waiting for us!  Pictures were taken and we board-ed vans for the 35 kilometer drive or 1 ½ hour drive to Gingoog City which was to be our home for the next 6 nights.  There is no language barrier as English is taught to all and there are several Americans in the local Rotary club.  There is a designated national dialect but there are 70-80 regional dialects so English is actually the language that most use when conversing with people from other areas.  Our first stop is at the City Building for a reception hosted by the Mayor Marie.  We are served snacks and welcomed by the officials and more Rotarians.  From there we are whisked away to a welcome dinner hosted by the Gingoog Bay Rotary Club which is composed mostly of women.  It is very festive and they are delighted we have arrived.  Our first meal and we are served a whole roasted pig.  We are very impressed.   After dinner and welcoming speeches we are whisked to our hotel which is circa 1950’s but very clean and air conditioned.

Medina Mayor Ken Nino T. Uyguangco welcome banner.

Medina Mayor Ken Nino T. Uyguangco welcome banner.

The next morning we board our vans to go to the warehouse where 260 wheelchairs are stored.  Twenty chairs were shipped to a city 4 hours away for distribution later in our visit.  We are going to assemble all 260 chairs this morning. We have never assembled the chairs prior to the distribution before so a new experience.  The Rotary Clubs have enlisted the help of 30 young, good looking Army and Police cadets to help with assembling.  Nathan has arranged for a compressor to air the tires as these chairs have bicycle tires!   It is very hot & humid for us but very soon the chairs are being assembled and arranged by size in the room next door.  By noon we have completed the project and 3 truckloads of chairs are on their way to the distribution sites.  A quick lunch and we are off to do what we are here for give away the chairs.

A group of 15 go to Magsaysay for distribution which is on one side of the island.  There are greeted by a town celebration when they arrive.  Social Services and the Gingoog Bay Club have done a great job of organizing the distribution.  Each chair has a small stuffed toy in it.  Many of the people have never been in this situation and are quite nervous so the animals give them a little security.  The animals are donated by the Mountain Bear Service.  The rest of us go to Talisayan where we are greeted by the Mayor of that community and a huge party.  Here we see the very real need and reaffirm the reason we are here.   There are a number of amputees which are carried in by families.  The children who have never been able to walk now will have an opportunity to go places.  They arrive by bus, motorcycle, tricycles (a homemade contraption powered by a bicycle or scooter) or by foot being carried by a family member.  There is much ceremony and we are very honored guests.    We help put the patients in the chairs, give instructions on how to use the chair, and watch the smiles and the tears of appreciation.  We hear the stories of those who have been bed ridden for years, the blind child who has been carried everywhere as he has no use of his legs as well.  This is why we are here!   The families cannot believe that their dream for mobility for their loved ones has been received.  From the distribution we are taken to a lovely beach restaurant where we are hosted by the local government dignitaries.  There have been very few tourists or outside aid groups in this area so they are very appreciative.   Our Rotary hosts are also very happy.   We are learning how much effort they have put into this as they have never have done this before and they have done a great job.

Kya adding stuffed animals to the wheelchairs.

Kya adding stuffed animals to the wheelchairs.

Our next distribution is in Medina which is a small town nearby.  Again, the festivities and the smiles and tears of the happy recipients are testimony to the gift of mobility.  We are entertained again at a beautiful beach with a great lunch.    We meet most of the local political officials as this is election year.  The mayors seem very young to us and we learn that this is the first step on the political ladder for most.  We do a lot of hands on and provide a good look at Americans for these people.   They learn we are real people not just the politicians they see on TV.

We have a free day and we are treated to a visit to Tiklas Falls.  This is just one of many water falls in the area.  We then visit a public school and especially, the Special Ed classes.   There is much need and it is amazing how much these teachers do with so little.  Again, we have had a very busy day.   We have entertainment tonight at a local college where the students have prepared a program of the music and dance of the islands through the years.  We have our first experience with a “brown out” and we are quickly taken back to our hotel.  The electrical system is very old and overworked so we are told that often power is out for anywhere from a few minutes to a day.  They are also concerned about terrorists striking their power grid.  We have security everywhere we go and we feel very safe.

Today is our largest distribution in Gingoog City.  We are going to give away 85 chairs today.  We are in a gymnasium much like the one at Madera High.  Again the Mayor arrives and then the distribution begins.  Chairs are assigned and checked to make sure they are the right size.  Again the animals are a bright spot.  I forgot to mention that we had lap quilts which members of the Madera Quilt Guild provided for some of the recipients.  This one goes very smoothly.  We all have our assigned duties and also help where needed and of course, have lots of pictures taken.  It is hard for us to imagine what it must be like to be deprived of mobility because there are no funds to provide chairs.

Our final distribution is in a small town about an hour from Cagyon de Oro which is a 4 hour bus ride for us but well worth the visit. Here we meet the Governor of this island.  We are very impressed.  He appears to be very concerned and hands on with the people and they love him.  He serves as our translator because it is a very different dialect and it seems many do not speak English.  These people are extremely poor and very needy but so very happy!

We leave the island of Mindanao with a happy heart!