Retirees wheely helpful on an International scale
by Aleisha Orr, care of WA Today
In developing countries there are children who spend their days stuck in a bed or on the ground, sometimes on cold concrete or out in the dirt.
While Australian children with medical conditions that make it difficult or impossible to walk use wheelchairs, they are not always affordable or easy to come by in places such as the Solomon Islands, Libya, Lebanon and the Congo.
A group of Perth retirees have been changing the lives of children in more than 60 countries, having built and distributed almost 26,000 wheelchairs for children in need of them.
Wheelchairs for Kids has been operating for 14 years and has more than 100 volunteers making wheelchairs which have been distributed across 66 countries.
According to those involved, it is the only project of its kind that works on such a big scale.
They work with humanitarian groups to distribute the wheelchairs once they are transported overseas.
Wheelchairs for Kids CEO Gordon Hudson and volunteer workshop manager Olly Pickett have seen the project develop since beginning in 1998, producing about 25 wheelchairs a month.
They have seen Wheelchairs for Kids, a Rotary backed project, grow to what it is today, making about 340 wheelchairs a month and about 4000 a year.
Mr Pickett, who spends much of his day in a wheelchair himself because of mobility issues caused by ankle problems, said wheelchairs gave children a whole new lease on life.
“Their lives would be much the poorer, for the simple reason that these little kids are on the ground and the governments sort of don’t give any help to their parents, particularly their mothers,” he said.
“The children are on the ground, just waiting for someone to pick them up.
“But a wheelchair makes a huge difference to them, not only to the children but also to the family, and the kids can get to school now, can get to the markets, just get out and have fun with the other kids, who push them around.
“It gives them a lot of dignity.”
Wheelchairs for Kids also provides a great outlet for retirees such as Mr Pickett, who donate their time to the cause.
“I love it. It’s certainly very rewarding in so far that you’re doing something for someone who’s far less fortunate than what we are,” he said.
“If you can get a smile on a little kid’s face because they’ve got a chance to have a life, just to get out and meet other kids and get to school, I mean it really does something for you.”
Mr Picket said the volunteers enjoyed what they were doing so much that no one ever missed their rostered shift unless they were sick or on holidays.
Mr Hudson said a lot had changed since the early days of Wheelchairs for Kids, and the outfit had become very professional.
“In 1998 it was very small; we were making wheelchairs out of old bike frames in the corner of a workshop,” he said.
“After about a year we realised we could make them new for about the same price as we could to make them out of the old bike frames.
“Four years ago, the World Health Organisation did a survey of wheelchairs supplied into under-resourced countries and they found a lot to be desired.
“The ordinary folding wheelchair just didn’t stand up in the rough terrain and they found that wheelchairs needed to be fitted and adjusted to the recipient.”
Two years ago they stopped production of their standard wheelchair and, using the latest advice, redesigned it.
“We now have a wheelchair made to World Health Organisation specifications, which is completely adjustable to all sizes to suit the growing needs of children,” Mr Hudson said.
“[Now] we have 120 volunteers that work in shifts, across four mornings a week, we have about 30 retiree volunteers on each shift.
“There are millions of children out there spending their time in the dirt, can’t get around, can’t go to school, can’t go to play with other children.
“Giving them a wheelchair changes their life, and changes the life of their family.”
Gerry Georgatos manages the Wheelchairs for Kids project, a job that always poses challenges – more so now that the project has recently lost some of the regular funding it relied upon.
“Cutbacks always tear at the soul of an organisation. It means a lot more people power, but people power can’t really replace all of the materials that we need,” he said.
“We’d like to actually secure the future for wheelchairs for children.”
To secure this future and help more people Mr Georgatos said the group needed to buy the factory.
“That’d give us the capacity to grow the output,” he said.
“There’s millions of kids (we could help). The more kids we can help, the more lives we touch and communities we help. Then they’ll have the opportunity for education – and that’s one thing that they’re definitely deprived of.”
For more information or to contribute to the project visit the Wheelchairs for Kids website.