On a trip to Morocco in 1977, mechanical engineer Don Schoendorfer saw an indigent woman who was unable to walk, reduced to crawling across the street. The image of extreme poverty and disability haunted him for years afterward. Years later, after a lucrative career in the biomedical field (Schoendorfer holds patents on more than 50 devices), that disturbing memory inspired the MIT graduate to give the gift of mobility to thousands of people with disabilities in developing nations by founding his own nonprofit organization, Free Wheelchair Mission (FWM). The idea for FWM emerged around 1999 from Schoendorfer’s promise to himself that he would no longer postpone his desire to use his time and talents to help others. “That was a fool’s game,” he says.So the California father of three thought back to the Moroccan woman whose immobility prevented the performance of the simplest tasks and designed a sturdy, stripped-down wheelchair for $44.40. Using easily-acquired parts, such as wheels from a mountain bicycle and the frame from a plastic lawn chair, Schoendorfer fashioned equipment that was durable enough to navigate rough terrain such as dirt, rock and mud, yet resistant to varying climatic conditions. The inventor later added other features such as a footrest, hand rims, brakes, a chair cushion, a patch kit and a child’s harness.From the start, Schoendorfer’s long-range goal was to manufacture and donate 20 million wheelchairs to the poor and disabled of developing countries around the world. At the same time, he could not help wondering why so many people shared the horrible affliction of permanent paralysis. He learned that conditions such as spina bifida, cerebral palsy and polio were responsible, and realizing the need for medical expertise, Schoendorfer reached out to orthopedic surgeon Mike Bayer, also from southern California. The two co-founded the Irvine, Calif.-based FWM while on a trip to India in 2001 when they tested several wheelchair prototypes. Nowadays, each wheelchair harkens back to the original design, but the cost, including transportation, has risen to $51.29. “It’s like a Model T Ford,” Schoendorfer says of his philanthropic invention, which requires only 30 minutes to assemble. “A one-size-fits-all.” Although Schoendorfer rarely boasts, Susan Shore, a physical therapist and associate professor at Azusa Pacific University near Los Angeles, conducted an independent study of 188 FWM users in Peru and India and concluded that despite medical issues like pain and pressure sores, the wheelchair generally improved each user’s quality of life, health, and everyday goals.FWM operates pragmatically to optimize its services, partnering with more than 150 charitable groups in 75 countries—a business model that minimizes expenses (such as the need for a foreign staff); expedites ocean shipments of containers (each container carries 550 wheelchair kits exported from FWM factories in Shanghai, China, to various international ports); and works with local authorities in foreign countries to unload the containers and clear customs. FWM partners also establish their own guidelines for wheelchair recipients and record and photograph the distribution process. As of January, FWM has distributed 365,000 wheelchairs to 71 countries, with large numbers shipped to India, Vietnam, and Peru. FWM recently sent 15,000 wheelchairs to the coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the military donated them to Iraqi hospitals that depended on the bodily strength of staff instead of on labor-saving mechanical devices. The wheelchairs, of course, provide more than mobility. “They restore people’s dignity and enable them to get jobs and return to school,” Bayer says. “It’s also dangerous to live on the ground and be exposed to disease and other unhealthy conditions.” Schoendorfer recalls how one 14-year-old girl convinced teachers to allow her to attend school in her new wheelchair. The young woman went on to college, and may eventually pursue a career in architecture.FWM’s annual $5 million-plus income derives from fundraisers held throughout the United States such as bike rides, picnics and barbecues, as well as from donations and grants. “A Wheeling, Virginia, pastor and his 600-member church raised more than $100,000,” says Bayer, who bicycled cross-country for FWM. Several years ago Nicolai Calabria, a disabled teenager with only one good leg, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and raised more than $53,000 in pledges. Every month, different organizations hold charitable events, such as the upcoming Midwest Run for Mobility in O’Fallon, Missouri on August 8th. Despite its far-reaching operations, FWM employs only 16 full and part-time employees, who are assisted by over 2,000 volunteers around the world. Although the charity is well known mostly in California, Schoendorfer has received many national as well as local awards, including the Congressional Medal of Honor (Gen. Colin Powell presented the Above and Beyond Award to Schoendorfer at Washington, DC’s National Arlington Cemetery); the White House Call to Service Award; and the Rotary International Wheelchair Distribution Award. Both co-founders devoted themselves to FWM for several years; Bayer recently pursued a fellowship in adult stem cell studies and in January joined San Diego-based Stemedica Cell Technologies, Inc. Schoendorfer never tires of watching the expressions on the faces of people seated in their new wheelchairs for the first time. Says Schoendorfer, “I am always struck fresh with the power of this simple chair with wheels.”
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By Janice Arenofsky
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