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Free Wheelchair Mission, a non-profit Christian organization, launched its “Mobility in Motion 2008” tour – which donates wheelchairs to millions of disabled individuals in developing counties – at UC Irvine on April 21.
Hosted by UCI’s Center for Service in Action, the event stressed that mobility impairment is a serious concern that affects the handicapped in developing countries throughout the world. Denied the basic resources to live independently, most are subjected to live in isolation or depend on family members to meet basic human needs. Article 20 of United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities reinforces the fundamental right of every individual to personal mobility by asking state parties to provide adequate mobility tools to fit the needs of each person.
However, the lack of resources and funding to increase supplies and provide better availabilities to impaired individuals is inadequate. Many disabled persons turn to donations, charities and non-profit organizations to get access to wheelchairs, even if it does not suit their needs. Because of such circumstances, Don Schoendorfer, founder and president of Free Wheelchair Mission, became motivated to provide wheelchairs to developing countries.
“It all started 10 years ago,” Schoendorfer said. “The idea came to me when I realized that I could use mountain bikes, conduit steels and chairs to create an inexpensive wheelchair design. When I heard about the huge need, I immediately set off to work to find an innovative way to give free wheelchairs to disabled persons in developing countries.”
In 2007, the World Health Organization estimated that one percent of the world’s population, or 65 million people, in developing countries have mobility impairment and need wheelchairs. Unfortunately, this number is increasing every year. Today, Free Wheelchair estimates that 100 million people in developing countries have no access to wheelchairs.
“In the U.S. it costs about $3,000 to make one wheelchair. I understood that the cost is significantly expensive. Nonetheless, I was motivated to reach out to those in need. I want to help them transform their lives,” Schoendorfer said.
Twenty-seven years ago, a young Schoendorfer witnessed a crippled Moroccan woman, crawling on her legs on a dirt road. The image became a seed of inspiration, and in 1999, he obtained a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. Still determined to pursue his dream, he continued to find innovative ways to create an inexpensive wheelchair.
“Before, refurbished U.S.-made wheelchairs were donated to developing countries—a very costly and ineffective process. I wanted to find a way to make the process [less] costly and [more] effective,” Schoendorfer said. “God answered my prayers when a factory in China offered to make a wheelchair for a small cost of only $29.95, including direct shipment to the Free Wheelchair volunteers in their destination countries.”
Among many recipients, the National Philanthropy Day Awards Luncheon on Nov. 13, 2007 honored Schoendorfer as the Outstanding Founder of the Year in Orange County. At the event, UCI Chancellor Michael V. Drake, a guest speaker for the occasion, met Schoendorfer for the first time.
Drake discussed how the Free Wheelchair Mission will partner with UCI’s School of Engineering to help redesign and improve its wheelchairs.
“I met Schoendorfer at the National Philanthropy Day Awards,” Drake said. “I am impressed by the ingenuity behind this project. … A little bit of engineering can make a dollar or two go a long way.”
Alison Roth, development manager for Free Wheelchair Mission, described how the students are beneficial to the organization.
“Since Free Wheelchair Mission is a non-profit organization that depends on donations and contributions from individuals or groups and not from corporations, UCI students in the School of Engineering are a good asset to the organization,” Roth said. “UCI plans to launch a fundraising event to spread awareness and the Mission’s goals.”
Darlene Esparza, director of UCI’s Center for Service in Action, confirmed that a campus-wide fundraising event in UCI will take place some time in fall quarter 2008.
“The idea for the event is to make it a campus challenge,” Esparza said.According to Esparza, the Center for Service in Action and Service Organization will launch the fundraiser. Esparza went on to say that the main supporter behind UCI’s partnership with the mission, and the ensuing fundraising event was none other than Chancellor Drake.
“Chancellor Drake found the mission, and it was he who informed us about the tour,” Esparza said. “The Center is privileged to be a part of this event, especially because it is for a good cause.”
Among the crowds was Wendy Lee, a third-year economics and psychology double-major.
“The mission is inspiring and I am glad to know that there is something like the Mission to help those who are in need,” Lee said.
Andrew Hsu, a second-year biological sciences major expressed similar interest toward the Mobility in Motion tour.
“My friends told me about this event, and it is a good idea that I came,” Hsu said.

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