“Only by giving are you able to receive more than you already have.”- Jim Rohn
At twenty-three years of age, I have witnessed more hardship and inaccessibility than most people will see in their lifetime. In 2001, my grandfather, Kenneth E. Behring, established The Wheelchair Foundation, a non-profit organization in Washington D.C. Although this organization is something that I have been exposed to since I was a young child, it is has touched me so deeply that I plan to one day take over for my father as the President of The Wheelchair Foundation. I feel honored and blessed to have been able to support their mission on over ten different mission trips in twelve different countries.
The Wheelchair Foundation has been my gateway to seeing these hardships firsthand in a myriad of different countries and has opened up my eyes to a world that many people tend to shove under the rug. Poverty, disease, malnutrition, armed conflict and lack of proper medical care are all major struggles and causes of disability in the developing world.
To date, The Wheelchair Foundation has delivered over 1,000,000 wheelchairs to over 156 different countries across the globe. It is estimated that at least one hundred million children, teens and adults worldwide need a wheelchair, but cannot afford one. Some international organizations state that the number could be as high as 6% of the population of developing countries.
Many times, these individuals do not attend school and are less likely to be employed. Families with a disabled family member tend to struggle financially and are pushed further into poverty often resulting in abandonment. Already suffering from the pain, isolation and indignity of a physical disability, many of these people must endure further burdens, many are forced to live on the ground or to wait to be carried to meet their most basic of needs. For many of the disabled, a wheelchair is a critical source of mobility which aids independence and integration into society, including their ability to earn a livelihood. For disabled children, a wheelchair aids their cognitive and psychosocial development.
When I was 14, I had the unforgettable opportunity to travel to South Africa to deliver wheelchairs with my dad and some Rotarians. Though I had always felt it was my calling to serve others, it was this pivotal trip that transformed the course of my life and who I was as a Daughter of the King. Since my last trip to Africa, I had had dreams to return, but this time around I wanted to make the trip happen completely on my own. My father told me that the way in which I could return would be to fund two containers of wheelchairs- which seemed daunting at $16,500 per container.
3 years ago, that dream to return to Africa became not only a plan, but a mission. For three years, I went to Rotary Club after Rotary Club putting together presentations on The Wheelchair Foundation (TWF), spoke at local schools, and put together fundraisers hoping that people would aid me on this mission. It is still SO darn humbling to know that so many incredible individuals provided what they could to help me surpass my goal of 2 containers, in fact, these servant-hearted folks helped me raise $42,500 to bring with us to Africa!!!! (Forever saying thank you for this!)
My dream had come alive and before we knew it, we were contacting non-profits and organizations in Africa and booking our flights to Tanzania.
When we arrived in Tanzania, we were sent on our way to the first wheelchair distribution at the Arusha District Commissioners Office. When we arrived, we were greeted with over 100 smiling faces of recipients, supporters, and family members. I'll never forget pulling up to the distribution and seeing so much joy and gratitude in one sitting. We were escorted to a small, white table in front of all the recipients where a few members of the Tanzanian government introduced us and spoke about our non-profit and our mission. Before we began placing the recipients in the wheelchairs, my father and I were able to give speeches of our own (it was pretty nifty to have our own Swahili translator!)
The next day marked our second wheelchair distribution which took place in Monduli at the Monduli Rehabilitation Centre where we were once again greeted with about 75 smiling and joyous faces! At the rehab center, we were able to see the rehabilitation services provided by the Tanzanian government and were able to visit with a few of the children who were recovering from amputations, limb separation, prosthetic limb attachment, or facial surgeries.
Following the tour of the rehab center, we began to set up the 50+ wheelchairs we had brought with us, most of them being “kanga wheelchairs,” which are specialized wheelchairs for those with severe deformities (I.E cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy, Mermaid Syndrome). Most of our recipients on our distributions were children, and upon seeing all of them, I immediately wished that we had been able to provide more of the kanga wheelchairs (which is tough because they're pricier at $650 per wheelchair versus $150 for the regular ones).
As always, it's incredibly difficult to see the disabilities and struggles that plague a third world country, and this distribution was no exception.
One of the most heart-wrenching feelings is seeing the way in which many of these people live when they are immobile. Many recipients arrived on motorcycles by being strapped to the driver, crawled their way to the distribution, used crutches as transportation, were carried on the backs of their caretakers, and some even made make-shift wheelchairs that were falling apart piece by piece.
We saw so many children that had horrific birth defects- most prominently cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy, hydrocephalus (brain swelling), Sirenomelia (Mermaid Syndrome where a baby is born with their legs sewn together), and congenital amputation (where a baby is born without limbs). A lot of these birth defects are due to lack of proper nutrition during pregnancy, excess fluoride in the water, AIDS, unsafe food and water, and poor prenatal care.
The remainder of our recipients were a mixture of elderly, people who had been paralyzed by car accidents, and people that had been involved in work accidents.
One of the most heartwarming stories from our distribution happened at our first distribution in Arusha. I had just placed this 8-year-old boy who had been paralyzed his entire life into a wheelchair when I asked the young girl next to him if she was his sister. She spoke English and told me she had been practicing so that she could thank us properly.
She took hold of both of my hands with tears in her eyes as she looked at me and said, “He is my best friend. We are best friends. We dreamed of the day that he could have his own wheelchair. I pushed him 35 miles for this. He is my best friend and now he is free to play on his own.”
You best bet I lost it at that moment.
One of the most incredible things I noticed in Africa was the immense sense of family and love that Africans have for one another. At these distributions you see family members who have taken care of the recipient for years, sometimes even decades. For example, at the Monduli Rehab Centre I met a recipient who was 104 (yes, 104) years old who had been taken care of by her son for over 40 years. Her son said that the government doesn't provide healthcare and hospitals refused to give her a wheelchair because they didn't believe it was necessary.
So for 40 years, he took care of his mother.
This blog post doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of the joy and gratitude that these wheelchair distributions provide. For my readers who have never been on a wheelchair distribution, it is one of the most life-changing experiences. I don't even know how to describe what it feels like to place someone in a wheelchair- to give them independence, hope, mobility, and a new lease on life by providing a simple seat and 4 wheels.
Nothing in my life has been as rewarding as not only being able to provide the funds for 2 containers of wheelchairs, but also to be able to distribute the wheelchairs with my family. I am forever grateful.
As I did when I was 14, I once again left my heart in Africa.