Human rights

Wheelchairs for Kids: Spreading a message of hope

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180 retired men and women volunteer their time manufacturing wheelchairs throughout the week (image supplied).

The thousands of wheelchairs produced to aid children across the world are a sign of hope despite war and poverty, writes Gerry Georgatos.

WHEELCHAIRS FOR KIDS is one of those one-in-a-million charities where everyone is a volunteer, where no one draws any form of remuneration.

In its two decades since establishment, it has donated rough terrain children’s wheelchairs to 73 countries.

180 volunteers, the majority retirees, are rostered to manufacture the wheelchairs at the Wheelchairs for Kids factory in a northern Perth suburb.

“We are changing lives, all over the world," says volunteer workshop manager, Brother Ollie Pickett.

The wheelchairs, with puncture proof tyres, are manufactured to last the duration of a childhood and are adjustable.

“We are at present producing 300 specialised wheelchairs per month,” said volunteer CEO, Gordon Hudson. “We have produced more,” he said, but that depends on donations which are needed to buy the materials. Gordon said the best "fundraisers are 'you' talking about us".

Wheelchairs for Kids understand some of the difficult terrains where its wheelchairs are needed:

"Our Technical Progress Group is still working on making improvements. The latest being a much stronger front swivel wheel and tyre as we have had a few reports of cracking – wait for it – after four years of being pushed through stony and muddy ground. We aim at perfection."

As of April 2018, Wheelchairs for Kids has manufactured 40,275 rough terrain children’s wheelchairs.

The unmet need in our world’s most difficult terrains, remotest regions, in war-ravaged nations is heartbreaking. Wheelchairs for Kids have the volunteers to manufacture and donate double and triple its annual output. It’s only the materials that need buying.

Each adjustable wheelchair needs $200 worth of materials: from $16 for the chassis, $30 for the wheels, $14 for the brakes, $25 for the footrests and so on. $200 ensures mobility for a child.

The wheelchairs reach some of our world’s most remote homelands.

Since 2007, my association with this one-in-a-million charity, I have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to ship rough terrain children’s wheelchairs to war-ravaged countries — including Iraq, Libya and Syria.

Alongside a friend I met while in the tertiary sector, we shipped more than a thousand rough terrain children’s wheelchairs to Iraq over a couple of years — 340 wheelchairs at a time.

Riyadh Al Hakim was a former Iraqi refugee who one day walked into my office at Murdoch University in mid-2006. He studied at Curtin University and would graduate with a Bachelor of International Studies. He was involved with a program I founded, Students Without Borders.

Students Without Borders' flagship project was a computer recycling program. We collected computers from verges and received donations that were being superseded so students and community members could refurbish them.

From 2004 to 2009, Students Without Borders donated 55,000 computers to anyone without one, both in Australia and to students and communities abroad.

That day Riyadh walked into my office, he asked if we could donate rough terrain wheelchairs to children in Iraq. I've never forgotten it.

During our conversation, he said:

“ ... the years of sanctions have deeply affected Iraqi society and people have learned to survive individually and have lost the sense of community and caring for others.”

He came from a region of Iraq devastated by the impacts of war. Riyadh described amputee children dragging themselves through the streets.

Riyadh also described to me a pre-invasion Iraq, one which I knew to be so, where it did not matter whether someone was Sunni or Shi’ite — and marriage and business between Sunnis and Shi’ites occurred on a daily basis. He said, “till this war was started on us, no Iraqi ever asked me whether I am Sunni or Shi’ite. Never.”

Riyadh asked me if I could help some of the children — amputees. We teamed up and organised for 327 rough terrain wheelchairs manufactured in Perth, Western Australia, by volunteers. We readied the shipment in 2008 to leave Fremantle port to Um Qasr port in Basra but the UN sanctions got in the way and all the shipping companies stated it was too dangerous.

We didn’t give up. We contacted a then-Australian Senator, Christopher Evans. The Senator empathised and organised for the Australian Defence Forces to fly by Hercules the cargo from Sydney’s Moorebank to Kuwait. The cargo was driven across the continent from Perth to Sydney. In Kuwait, the Australian Defence Forces transported the cargo of wheelchairs to the Iraqi border. Riyadh and others met them there and the 327 children’s wheelchairs were transported and donated to the towns of Najaf, Ramadi and Samawa.

With the vital fundraising assistance by a Lebanese NSW Parliamentarian, Shaoquett Moselmane, a couple of years ago we shipped 340 rough terrain children’s wheelchairs to the Syrian port city of Latakia. These rough terrain wheelchairs come with puncture proof tyres and are manufactured to last through a childhood.

When others learned that we had shipped a container to Syria, I was called by two major Australian news mastheads suggesting that this deed could be viewed by Australians as a transgression of aiding “the enemy”. I responded we are not armament smugglers but helping children — amputees. The hatchet job never took place. Soon after, we shipped another container of rough terrain children’s wheelchairs to Latakia; the tragedy is beyond mere words.

It breaks my heart every time a shipment leaves – to the Congo, Libya, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, to wherever – bombs, missiles, human-made-abominations have maimed children, made them amputees.

In a shared understanding between Wheelchairs for Kids and the National Indigenous Critical Response Service, Wheelchairs for Kids will donate rough terrain wheelchairs to every Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander child living remotely that may need one.

Transportation of the rough terrain wheelchairs produced by Wheelchairs for Kids to remote areas (images supplied).

Wheelchairs for Kids has donated rough terrain wheelchairs thus far:

  • 7,553 to Vietnam
  • 2,219 to Papua and New Guinea
  • 2,206 to Sri Lanka
  • 2,125 to Myanmar
  • 1,949 to Iraq
  • 1,745 to China
  • 1,726 to Tanzania
  • 1,467 to Uganda
  • 1,414 to Kenya
  • 1,360 to Malawi
  • 1,127 to Indonesia

One amazing individual is Lebanese-born NSW Parliamentarian Shaoquett Moselmane. He has raised funds to sponsor more than 2,000 rough terrain children’s wheelchairs to seven countries.

In 2015, Shaoquett and I shipped more than 500 children’s wheelchairs to provincial China. In July 2015, we visited Shanghai and were taken on a tour of a Shanghai orphanage – the world’s largest – for abandoned babies and toddlers with disabilities. During our visit of the orphanage, we learned that 160 children were in need of wheelchairs. We looked at each other and then made the commitment to the orphanage director, Lucy, that we would meet this need. With the funds raised, months later Wheelchairs for Kids shipped the container to Shanghai.

In June, Wheelchairs for Kids will ship enough wheelchairs to Indonesia’s Lombok to meet the island’s total need.

It doesn’t end — in recent times Wheelchairs for Kids has reached children in Gaza, Mongolia, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, the Congo.

Despite all the wrong in our world, there’s good, there’s love. Despite the abomination of millions killed in wars and civil strife each year in our world, millions maimed, millions who are refugees, the billions in poverty, we have to stay solid in the love, in never giving up.

Example is our only immortality.

You can make a donation to Wheelchairs for Kids here.

Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention researcher and restorative justice and prison reform expert with the Institute of Social Justice and Human Rights. You can follow Gerry on Twitter @GerryGeorgatos.

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