The disabled poor just want to be out of the dirt where rats and snakes are.
By NANCY TULLIS
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- When Donald Schoendorfer discovered that a simple but sturdy wheelchair would change the lives of the world's disabled poor, he made them one.
Schoendorfer, a Santa Ana, Calif., mechanical engineer, grew up in Ashtabula and attended the Second Congregational Church there from age 5 until he graduated from high school. Now the congregation has adopted Schoendorfer's New Life mission as its own, and is spreading the word about his cause.
Schoendorfer designed a simple but sturdy chair that can be manufactured and shipped for less than $50. He founded Free Wheelchair Mission in 2001 and turned to that work full time.
The Rev. Glen Warner, pastor of Second Congregational, said his congregation wants to raise enough money to provide 5,500 chairs by Nov. 22, when it is planning a banquet in Schoendorfer's honor.
The congregation is seeking the help of individuals and groups in Northeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania to reach that goal. It will accept donations sent to the church but is also willing to travel around the region to make presentations to area churches and civic organizations.
Schoendorfer holds bachelor's degrees from Baldwin Wallace College and Columbia University and a master's and doctorate in mechanical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has also been awarded 53 U.S. patents for human blood collection and processing equipment, drug testing and fingerprinting materials and procedures.
Warner said Schoendorfer and his wife were traveling in Morocco nearly 25 years ago, and Schoendorfer saw a woman dragging herself across a dirt road. He realized then that people dealing with disabilities in developing countries were doomed to a life of crawling on the ground.
He said illness, disease, war injuries and land mines leave millions of people defenseless in the dirt.
For 22 years he continued to work as a mechanical engineer, but the image of the woman never left him. He worked with many different designs and materials until he was satisfied with a wheelchair that was sturdy but affordable.
The chair he designed is made of a plastic picnic chair and mountain bike tires, and each chair can be manufactured and shipped for $41.17.
Since 2001, Free Wheelchair Mission has provided 55,000 of Schoendorfer's chairs for people around the world. He wants to distribute 20 million chairs by 2010.
Warner said the chairs are manufactured in two factories in China, then shipped to a designated country, where a team of volunteers assembles and distributes them. Sometimes the groups that raise money also volunteer to travel and deliver the chairs, Warner said.
A promotional video shows people crowded around the Free Wheelchair Mission teams as they unload trucks. People crawl or drag themselves or are carried for a chance to get a chair.
Schoendorfer said the disabled poor just want to be mobile. They want to be out of people's way, off the ground, and out of the dirt where the rats and snakes are.
Schoendorfer said he quickly learned that there are always more people than he has chairs to give, and the most needy are the last to arrive. He then makes plans to return to the same location with more chairs.
"We are taking a leadership role in this because having that old church connection [to Schoendorfer] has a lot of meaning for us," Warner said. "We are humbled and honored to be a part of it."
For more information, call the Second Congregational Church at (440) 964-9640. The organization's Web site is www.freewheelchairmission.org.