If you learn the discipline of self-reliance as a youth, there’s almost nothing you can’t do as an adult. A beautiful example of that is the story of Don Schoendorfer and his personal mission.
Don and his wife, Laurie, took what would turn out to be the most fateful vacation of their lives, to— of all places— the North African country of Morocco. They left the comfort of their home in Massachusetts and flew to Spain, where they rented a car for the rest of the trip. About thirty minutes after crossing the Strait of Gibraltar by ferry at the Tangier crossing, they arrived at their first stop in the city of Tetouan. They were particularly interested in exploring the Medina, the oldest and walled-off part of town marked by streets too narrow for modern cars. As they walked among the crowd, they were shocked to see a woman, probably in her thirties, crawling across the street. Not on her hands and knees, like she was looking for something, but on her stomach, head down, dragging her torso and lifeless legs behind her. Her clothes were tattered and her legs were bleeding. But her purposeful and practiced method made it clear she hadn’t just suffered an injury moments earlier. She couldn’t walk, and this was simply her only means of movement. Perhaps more alarming were the multitudes of people completely unaware of her, moving around her the way a rushing stream moves around a rock in the streambed. Apparently this wasn’t an unusual occurrence in Tetouan. But to Don Schoendorfer it was. That moment left an indelible stain in Don’s memory, one that would resurface two decades later.
Half a working lifetime later, and at the apex of his personal spiritual journey, Don decided to shift his focus away from building his own fortune and toward giving back to humanity. He toyed with the idea of tutoring and mentoring underprivileged children. But then he decided to find a way to leverage his skills as an engineer and inventor. But what problem to tackle? That’s when his thoughts returned to the disabled woman in Morocco. Why didn’t she have a wheelchair?
So Don investigated and learned the stark reality. More than 130 million people in the world need a wheelchair but can’t afford one. The reason? Wheelchairs are remarkably expensive. A decent one can cost from $500 to $10,000. In many parts of the world, that’s several years of working income, especially for someone with disabilities. Over the prior fifteen years, charitable organizations had given away perhaps a total of 100,000 wheelchairs to those in need somewhere in the world. In other words, in fifteen years of effort, people had solved only one-tenth of 1 percent of the problem, leaving 99.9 percent still in need. Don had found his mission.
What he decided to do about it
In the garage of his home in Santa Ana, California, Don went to work. His goal: design a wheelchair that could be built, delivered, and repaired anywhere in the world at a fraction of the usual cost. To do that, he decided to build it from easily accessible parts made for other purposes and produced in high volume at low cost. Instead of wheels made for wheelchairs, he settled on bicycle wheels. Bicycles are the number one means of transportation in the world. If his wheels broke down or got a puncture, they could be fixed or replaced cheaply and easily by just about anyone. For the seat, he chose the white resin stackable lawn chairs you see at every lawn and garden center. It was all held together by a simple steel frame Don designed himself. All said, Don’s wheelchairs could be built and delivered just about anywhere in the world for less than $ 72. Don’s vision, Free Wheelchair Mission, was born.
Meeting Lotus Blossom
He built the first one hundred chairs by hand in his own garage. Then his first opportunity to find needy owners for them came from a medical church mission to Chennai, India, with room to bring only four chairs. One of those first four recipients was Kumadevealy, which in English means “Lotus Blossom.” She was sixteen years old and had never been able to walk. She lived out her entire existence on the floor of a small room in her parents’ home. She took to the chair almost immediately. The other children in the neighborhood quickly began moving stones out of the way so she could wheel herself out of the house. Her mother wept as she saw her daughter cross the threshold under her own power for the first time in her life. At that moment, Don knew he’d made the right decision.
A dozen years later, Don’t mission is still going strong. With the help of financial donations, they’ve assembled and given away more than 740,000 wheelchairs to impoverished and disabled people in ninety countries around the world. Those numbers are of course encouraging to Don. But one of the most personally satisfying moments for him came in 2011 when he had the opportunity to go back to Chennai and visit Lotus Blossom. Winding his way up the alley to the same home where they’d met, he saw her out front waiting for him. But this time she wasn’t lying on the floor, and she wasn’t even sitting in a wheelchair. She was standing. And using nothing but the power of her own two legs, she walked over and greeted him.
In that emotion-filled visit, she explained to Don what had happened. Once she had the chair, she learned to use it to pull herself up to stand or to go to the bathroom. After several years, her legs slowly got stronger. It’s ironic, really. The tool Don built to allow her to sit and roll actually helped her learn how to stand and walk.
Don’s work, along with the help of the thousands who have contributed to this cause, are a testament to the power of seeing a problem and asking yourself, “Well, what are you going to do about it?”
If you’d like to contribute to Don’s cause, you can do so at www.freewheelchairmission.org.
As with all the stories in my posts, I encourage you to share this with your kids, and then have a discussion about it. Here are some questions to get you started. . .
- What would Lotus Blossom be doing now if it weren’t for Don’s mission?
- Have you ever seen something that bothered you and wondered, “Why doesn’t somebody do something about that?” What was it?
- What could you do about it if you set your mind to it right now?
[You can find this and over 100 other character-building stories in my book, Parenting with a Story.]
Paul Smith is a one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story.
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