For nearly 20 years, Wheels for the World, an arm of Joni and Friends has been making dramatic changes in the lives of people with disabilities and their families. Since 1994, some 30 different trips have taken place each year where teams deliver custom-fit wheelchairs to those in need around the globe. To date, over 100,000 wheelchairs have been distributed.
Wheels for the World’s impact does not stop with just their gifts of mobility, the teams also administer educational training in wheelchair use and upkeep, and they share messages of love and hope to both the recipients and their families. The teams will often work with and aid local churches causing a deeper connection with the family members, which provides for continued resources and support long after the team’s exit.
Whereas a lot of Wheel for the World’s work is focused on the poor in third-world countries, the organization also changes lives here at home. It is inmates at correctional facilities across the U.S. who restore the donated used wheelchairs to like-new condition for distribution. Through the wheelchair refabrication process, Wheels for the World provides work and purpose for many.
We caught up with Diane this week to learn more about her past and present work with Wheels for the World.
What inspired you to become a volunteer with Wheels for the World?
I was born in SE Asia and at the age of 6 months, I was diagnosed with polio. I attribute the increased mobility in my life to the care and opportunities I had when my family moved to the U.S.
In 2000, I attended a conference for college students held by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship where I learned of a ministry to disabled through Joni and Friends. In 2003, a team from Wheels for the World was going to distribute 200 wheelchairs in Vietnam. I felt this was my opportunity to use my own language skills and participate in something I believe in. This became my first Wheels trip and I went as the team interpreter. Since that time I have been a part of Wheels teams in 2005, 2013 and I will be a part of 2015’s Thailand team next month.
I know disabilities can touch every aspect of humanity. It does not discriminate over race, socioeconomic status, location, or age. I have learned this is a great calling on my life to help others. I want do this for as long as I physically can. I am hoping after this trip to Thailand that I will go to Africa in 2 years.
This upcoming trip is your fourth trip with Wheels for the World, do you have a particular story or memorable moment from previous trips?
I do have a story that has a great personal impact on me. In 2003 when I went to Vietnam, I met two little girls about elementary school age. Both were polio survivors like myself. The girls could not walk, they had not received the same care as I had received in my life. I still wear a leg brace today, but I know I have more mobility than if my family has stayed in Vietnam when I was growing up.
From these two girls, I could see how lucky I am. If I had grown up in Vietnam, rather than the U.S., I would have been in their place. I would be the one not able to get around. This experience really changed me. It was a wake-up call. I know now I need to go on these trips. They give me a better perspective of what is important in life. The challenges in my life are nothing compared to the challenges faced by the people I am there to serve. I have much I am grateful for and in this way I can give back.
What changes have you seen in those who receive the wheelchairs?
I have seen kids get to go school for the first time. Prior to the wheelchair, their disabilities had completely immobilized their life.
At Wheels for the World, we capture a story for every chair. Each chair has a number and we identify a life and a story to that specific chair. Part of my work on the team is to bring those stories home to share. Each month Wheels for the World highlights a different story in their newsletter. You can learn more of the stories and see more of our work there.
What kind of reactions of the family members of the recipients have you seen?
I have had the privilege of being the team member who interviews the family members. I learn what their life is like and how we can help change their lives.
Many times the family is apprehensive at the start. For instance in Thailand, where the culture is 95% Buddhist, a disability is considered a curse on the family. Culturally there is a large shame factor. We have to do much to break down walls and show our true intentions to help and share love.
We take many things with us as a team to offer as additional resources. These things help us create bridges. Often we will have toothbrushes, toothpaste, chewing gum, small toys to offer. But one of the biggest things we do is pray with the family, share our purpose, and our message.
By the end of our time, I have seen these same apprehensive families full of smiles, trust, and empowered.
Any surprises as a result of this work?
Whereas we go to help or bless others, this work really changes us (the team members) for the better. We are just as blessed and receive just as many benefits. Often, it is amazing all God will accomplish. I have learned that life is not about us, but how we become better people through giving and serving others.
What are some of Wheels’ plans for the future?
Wheels for the World has a current goal to distribute 200,000 wheelchairs in next 10 years. That is double the amount of wheelchairs that have been distributed in its 20-year existence.
How can others be a part?
Our teams always welcome prayer.
Then, of course, Wheels is always looking for wheelchair donations. A person can become a Chair Corps Volunteer or even organize a wheelchair drive. On the Joni and Friends website, there is a map with all the locations of our offices across the U.S. Contact a local office to donate or serve.
In addition, one can also donate money directly. Even though we choose the lowest possible freight by shipping the wheelchairs via boat, there are high costs in getting the chairs in country. And then there are also costs for repair parts or even sometimes for the chairs themselves. Lastly, the members of the teams are volunteers. Support for their travel expenses is a need.
Join purplemaron in supporting Wheels for the World! 50% of all September Sales will be donated to the Thailand Team. Use code “wheels” at checkout.
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Follow Diane on her adventures through Thailand. Email her here to join her private FB group.