by Chip Colandreo
For a little girl, living without the use of her legs in an impoverished village in El Salvador, it was a simple and touching wish.
“She desperately wanted a wheelchair because she read that a wheelchair would allow her to dance,” says Mandi Howell of Sanford. “I’ve always had a passion for helping people, often with little acts that hopefully add up over time, but the Wheelchair Foundation gave me the opportunity to do something more, something life-changing for people in need.”
At a cost of $150, Mandi made the little girl’s dream come true. The Wheelchair Foundation is an international nonprofit group that, in conjunction with Rotary Clubs around the globe, distributes high-quality wheelchairs to those living in poverty. To date, nearly one million wheelchairs have been given to men and women of all ages, though tens-of-millions more are needed in the world’s developing countries. Per Wheelchair Foundation tradition, anyone who raises or donates enough money to fund even a single wheelchair is invited to help distribute the chairs in person. That’s precisely what Mandi did during a recent trip with the Wheelchair Foundation to El Salvador, where she saw one darling girl’s life change right before her eyes.
“The moment she was placed in the chair, the girl began to dance,” Mandi recalls. “She refused to let anyone push her, but she spun and glided as fast as her tiny arms would allow. She’d stop to catch her breath every few seconds – her arms weren’t nearly as strong as they would quickly become – but the smile never left her face.”
Mandi’s employer, Glen Mather, is Seminole County’s strongest supporter and largest fundraiser for the Wheelchair Foundation. He’s made the Foundation the international charity of choice for his Lake Mary company, NuView IRA. Glen’s employees, with Mandi at the lead, have rallied the community to raise tens-of-thousands of dollars for the Wheelchair Foundation. In 2013, the group organized the inaugural Hero Games at Oval Park in Heathrow to fund 100 wheelchairs and the trip to El Salvador to distribute them. In addition to its support for the Wheelchair Foundation, the Hero Games paid tribute to military service members and public safety officials with an obstacle course competition simulating the training programs these heroes go through to prepare for duty. More than 60 sponsored participants competed on the course while another 150-plus supporters cheered them on.
Glen, Mandi, and their team are hard at work on the 2014 installment of the Hero Games, which will take place in October. A 5K race will be added to the festivities, with a special division for supporters of the cause who are wheelchair-bound. Food trucks, a favorite feature of last year’s event, are scheduled to appear again, and many more surprises are in store.
“Our goal is to raise enough money to fill a shipping container full of wheelchairs,” says Glen. “That’s about $42,000 to fund 280 chairs, and anyone who funds a $150 chair and helps us reach that goal will be honored at the Hero Games and invited to join us on the trip to distribute them.”
Glen won’t know where the chairs will go until later in the year. Central and South American countries are popular for U.S.-based distributions. Since the Wheelchair Foundation was established in 2000, nearly 160,000 chairs have been distributed in Mexico. Only China has received more (about 340,000). The Wheelchair Foundation distributes the chairs without influence from local or federal governments in the receiving nations, many of which are unstable and fraught with corruption. Instead, local Rotarians identify who is in greatest need of a chair and personally verify that the chair stays with the recipient for as long as it is required. When possible, chairs are then recycled and given to others. Donors are responsible for airfare and accommodations, though the Wheelchair Foundation works with reputable hotels in the donation area to offer discounted rates.
What are the distribution events like? “Tearful, but exciting at the same time,” says Mandi. “Recipients come from rural areas hours away, sometimes carried by family members to get their chairs. Every chair is a small miracle, and they all add up to an incredible experience.”
“It’s one chair, one person, and a complete life change over and over again,” says Glen, who has distributed chairs in Mexico City, Guatemala, and El Salvador. You come back humble, grateful, and eager to do more.”
Photos: Twelve years ago, Hector Manley (right) lost both his legs during an earthquake in his native El Salvador. He has since become one of the Wheelchair Foundation’s greatest advocates. He’s pictured here giving the gift of mobility to another El Salvadoran boy, with Glen Mather and Mandi Howell (left).