Experience is hard to come by for a college student; internships are underpaid or simply not feasible, class schedules prohibit a full time job, and all the challenges of the real world often hit you like a train as soon as you graduate. I was determined not to fall into that trap, so halfway through my Junior year of college, I took a part time job as the Charity Administrator for Chair the Love. I’d never heard of the organization, but its values and mission lined up with my major and my interests, so of course I was thrilled to have such a great opportunity. Less than a year later, I found myself in Guadalajara, Mexico, preparing to distribute 280 wheelchairs across the region, meeting the people that we help face-to-face and experiencing what our donors experience for the first time.
On the hour long bus ride into the first wheelchair distribution, we had passed countless towns with run down buildings and people sitting on doorsteps or crowding into outdoor kitchens. The most striking thing about Mexico so far was the color; even the buildings in shambles were usually painted a bright blue or pink, and despite the fading paint, it made each alley into a beautiful picture.
When we reached Ameca, MX, many of the buildings were painted turquoise, and there were people watching as we walked towards the gymnasium where brand new wheelchairs waited to join their new owners. People were sitting in their cars outside the gym, unable to even get out and walk inside; our Rotarian friends were bringing the wheelchairs out to them so they could join us for the ceremony. Immediately, we saw people in tears as they were lifted from their car into a wheelchair. Some of these individuals may have driven miles in the hopes of a wheelchair, and it was bittersweet to watch their joy as they received such a basic need. Of course, it was wonderful that we were able to bring them a wheelchair; but how many would never have that need met?
As we stepped into the gymnasium, the buzz of about a hundred voices filled our ears. We were giving away just forty chairs at this first distribution, but with Rotary volunteers, government officials, and the family members of those receiving chairs, it was a busy scene. For the next hour, we were hard at work lifting people into their wheelchairs, adjusting the feet, ensuring everyone had the right sizes, and wheeling each individual down a steep ramp into the auditorium where the ceremony was set up. Local volunteers distributed food and drinks as each wheelchair recipient was rolled into place next to their family member, and more family members watched from the back of the room so that everyone was far apart enough to satisfy COVID restrictions. Once everyone was in place, we began passing out handmade lap blankets to each wheelchair user (made and brought by the wonderful Audrey Byllott), as well as bags of toys and hygiene items that the president of Chair the Love put together with his family. The ceremony began shortly after, and I moved to the back of the auditorium to watch. The place I chose happened to be right next to a young boy who was not at all interested in the talking happening toward the front; he was one of the children who’d received a bag of toys, and he was over the moon. He’d run back and forth in the back of the room, chasing the toy cars that came inside the bag, and swinging the small baseball bat aggressively (despite the lack of a pitcher). I waved at him every time he walked by, and eventually, he pulled a coloring book and crayons out of his bag, brought them over, and gestured to me to start helping him fill in a page. I found out that his name was Alex, and he was 5 years old.
This would have been a rather standard experience anywhere else, except for one thing. The reason Alex was so restless and excited was not just the fact that he was only 5; he would run to the front of the room every 10 minutes, coloring book in hand, to show his grandmother the progress we had made and jump up on her lap as she sat in her brand new wheelchair. Alex, his mother, and his aunt and uncle had all come to watch this sweet old lady receive the first wheelchair she had ever owned, and Alex was simply young enough to openly exhibit the excitement felt by every person in the room.
We met 40 individuals and their family members that day, and their stories could not have been more different. There was a man who lost his legs to a bull; two young girls born with mental disabilities that made it impossible for them to move independently; victims of illness, diabetes, and lack of treatment, yet each and every person left with a new hope. Eventually, every person who travels with us to help distribute wheelchairs realizes that a wheelchair means hope in the most concrete sense. A wheelchair can mean access to the community, a job, continuing education, travel, and freedom, but more than anything else, when a person receives a wheelchair, they receive a new hope and a new future; one that is not limited by their physical disabilities, and that gives back their autonomy and freedom as individuals.