Perth retirees make wheelchairs for kids in need
By Stephanie Dalzell, ABC
Friday Mar 15, 2013
Brother Olly Pickett was building wheelchairs for children in a tiny workshop in Cambodia when he came across one of the youngest workers in the group.
The 15-year-old amputee was propped up on his knees, undeterred by the rough concrete floor he was kneeling on.
He was helping construct one of a dozen wheelchairs for children on the outskirts of the town who struggled to get to the local school each day.
Brother Pickett says at the end of his trip, the group decided to give the boy his own wheelchair.
"He was thrilled to bits, we gave him that wheelchair and honestly, I'll never, ever forget that smile on his face," he said.
Brother Pickett has been involved in Wheelchairs for Kids since it first started in 1998.
The WA charity runs out of a factory in the Perth suburb of Gnangara, and on a typical day is filled with more than 100 retiree volunteers working to construct various wheelchairs.
The chairs are then sent to impoverished and disabled children in under resourced countries like Iraq and Pakistan.
"It's very rewarding, helping these little children that haven't got a hope," Brother Pickett said.
Over the past 14 years, the charity has donated nearly 25,000 wheelchairs to children in more than 60 different countries.
"Sometimes they're born with a disability, they've stood on a landmine, they've been injured at war or they have cerebral palsy and no one can help them," Brother Olly said.
He says without intervention, some of the children are left immobile and unattended for most of the day.
"They just leave them in the corner, and the kids have to fend for themselves."
Off the ground
Beppie Dekuyer, 70, says she wanted to be involved in the charity as soon as she heard about it.
"I could see how wonderful this project would be, to get children off the ground who have no way of getting a wheelchair."
With Brother Pickett by her side, she has travelled around the world, distributing the wheelchairs her friends so carefully crafted in Perth.
She says all of their hard work was personified two years ago, when she met 21-year-old Edward in Vanuatu.
Physically disabled and incredibly impoverished, he'd been confined to a bed for most of his life.
"He would be lying down all day, and wherever he went, his parents had to carry him," she said.
Ms Dekyer says the day they fitted Edward into a new wheelchair was one of the most memorable of her life.
"I think everybody was just crying, it was so moving and the parents were just so happy," she said.
"To see the joy in not just the child's face, but the whole family, they're so thrilled that life becomes easier for them."
Gerry Georgatos' interest in the cause was piqued while he was working in the Student Guild at Murdoch University.
He was approached by an Iraqi refugee, who told him about the thousands of young amputees in Iraq who had no way of moving around.
It was then that he came across Wheelchairs for Kids: the program he would ultimately coordinate.
Middle East delivery
Mr Georgatos spent the last seven years trying to raise funds to ship containers containing hundreds of pre-assembled wheelchairs to the Middle East.
"The next one leaves for Lebanon next week, it's going to northern Lebanon where there's a lot of civil strife, and no wheelchair assembly factories, and no way other than us to get those wheelchairs to kids," he said.
He is currently in negotiations with the Israeli government to ensure another shipment headed to Palestine won't be held up by authorities.
"Because of civil strife in the region sometimes they can get held up, so I'm trying to make sure they get to the children quickly."
Mr Georgatos says while the organisation has changed the life of 25,000 children around the world, there's still many more who are suffering.
"There are millions of children around the world without wheelchairs, and we only send thousands each year. But each one helps."
And Brother Pickett says no one knows that more than the children themselves.
"A wheelchair makes a huge difference, they can get to school, they can get to the market, they can play with their friends and it gives them some dignity by getting off the floor."
He says that's the most rewarding thing about his work.
"I know I'm doing something to make a difference to a child that has no hope."
RETIREES HELPING CHILDREN ON AN INTERNATIONAL SCALE
By Aleisha Orr, WA Today/Fairfax, June 12, 2013
In developing countries there are children who spend their days stuck in a bed or on the ground, sometimes on cold concrete or out in the dirt.
While Australian children with medical conditions that make it difficult or impossible to walk use wheelchairs, they are not always affordable or easy to come by in places such as the Solomon Islands, Libya, Lebanon and the Congo.
A group of Perth retirees have been changing the lives of children in more than 60 countries, having built and distributed almost 26,000 wheelchairs for children in need of them.
Wheelchairs for Kids has been operating for 14 years and has more than 100 volunteers making wheelchairs which have been distributed across 66 countries.
According to those involved, it is the only project of its kind that works on such a big scale.
They work with humanitarian groups to distribute the wheelchairs once they are transported overseas.
Wheelchairs for Kids CEO Gordon Hudson and volunteer workshop manager Olly Pickett have seen the project develop since beginning in 1998, producing about 25 wheelchairs a month.
They have seen Wheelchairs for Kids, a Rotary backed project, grow to what it is today, making about 340 wheelchairs a month and about 4000 a year.
Mr Pickett, who spends much of his day in a wheelchair himself because of mobility issues caused by ankle problems, said wheelchairs gave children a whole new lease on life.
"Their lives would be much the poorer, for the simple reason that these little kids are on the ground and the governments sort of don't give any help to their parents, particularly their mothers," he said.
"The children are on the ground, just waiting for someone to pick them up.
"But a wheelchair makes a huge difference to them, not only to the children but also to the family, and the kids can get to school now, can get to the markets, just get out and have fun with the other kids, who push them around.
"It gives them a lot of dignity."
Wheelchairs for Kids also provides a great outlet for retirees such as Mr Pickett, who donate their time to the cause.
"I love it. It's certainly very rewarding in so far that you're doing something for someone who's far less fortunate than what we are," he said.
"If you can get a smile on a little kid's face because they've got a chance to have a life, just to get out and meet other kids and get to school, I mean it really does something for you."
Mr Picket said the volunteers enjoyed what they were doing so much that no one ever missed their rostered shift unless they were sick or on holidays.
Mr Hudson said a lot had changed since the early days of Wheelchairs for Kids, and the outfit had become very professional.
"In 1998 it was very small; we were making wheelchairs out of old bike frames in the corner of a workshop," he said.
"After about a year we realised we could make them new for about the same price as we could to make them out of the old bike frames.
"Four years ago, the World Health Organisation did a survey of wheelchairs supplied into under-resourced countries and they found a lot to be desired.
"The ordinary folding wheelchair just didn't stand up in the rough terrain and they found that wheelchairs needed to be fitted and adjusted to the recipient."
Two years ago they stopped production of their standard wheelchair and, using the latest advice, redesigned it.
"We now have a wheelchair made to World Health Organisation specifications, which is completely adjustable to all sizes to suit the growing needs of children," Mr Hudson said.
"[Now] we have 120 volunteers that work in shifts, across four mornings a week, we have about 30 retiree volunteers on each shift.
"There are millions of children out there spending their time in the dirt, can't get around, can't go to school, can't go to play with other children.
"Giving them a wheelchair changes their life, and changes the life of their family."
Gerry Georgatos manages the Wheelchairs for Kids foundation, a job that always poses challenges - more so now that the project has recently lost some of the regular funding it relied upon.
"Cutbacks always tear at the soul of an organisation. It means a lot more people power, but people power can't really replace all of the materials that we need," he said.
"We'd like to actually secure the future for wheelchairs for children."
To secure this future and help more people Mr Georgatos said the group needed to buy the factory.
"That'd give us the capacity to grow the output," he said.
"There's millions of kids (we could help). The more kids we can help, the more lives we touch and communities we help. Then they'll have the opportunity for education - and that's one thing that they're definitely deprived of."
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