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