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Building freedom through mobility

fr wheelchairIt was a moment that forever stuck with Don Schoendorfer.

While on vacation in Morocco several years ago, the southern California engineer/inventor witnessed a disabled woman dragging herself across a busy street. She had no wheelchair. Nobody seemed to even notice her, let alone provide her assistance. 


“I realized then I had to use my gifts in a more appropriate way,” he said. “I knew I had to do something instead of making money for myself.”

With that image of the Moroccan woman burned in his mind, Schoendorfer put together his creative talents of design and came up with an idea. He found a way of making an inexpensive wheelchair by combining a plastic lawn chair with the wheels from a bicycle — the bike tires were a critical feature given the rough dirt roads of many third-world countries.

The design worked and so began the origin of the Free Wheelchair Mission. Since that first prototype some 13 years ago, Schoendorfer has raised funds to assemble and distribute more than 700,000 wheelchairs worldwide.

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Recently, Rotary Club members from Jackson and Macon counties joined the effort, raising $36,000 for 550 wheelchairs destined for Bolivia. But raising the money was only half the job.

A team of Rotary members will soon head to the South American country to greet the shipping container of wheelchair parts, put them together and give them out to those less fortunate.

Schoendorfer dropped in to the Highlands-Cashiers Hospital last week to give local Rotary members a pat on the back for their effort, as well as lead a couple of run-throughs on how to properly assemble the chairs.

“This is giving people mobility, it’s getting them off the ground after they’ve been like that their whole lives,” said Rotary member Duncan Wheale of Cashiers. “I and my family have been blessed. I’m retired now, and this is the least I can do to give back.”

Over the last six months, the Rotary clubs of Cashiers Valley, Franklin-Daybreak, Sylva, Highlands, Franklin and Highlands Mountaintop raised the money for the faith-based mission. 

According to Schoendorfer, there are more than 100 million people around the globe in need of a wheelchair. Many of these foreign countries in need have long histories of hiding disabled people behind closed doors. In many cases, the disabled are looked on with shame and embarrassment for their families. But, with these wheelchairs, independence and acceptance can now emerge within these societies. 

“We want these people in need to know that they’re loved, that we don’t know why they became disabled, but we want to help them and give them a chair,” he said. “Human beings weren’t designed to be crawling and living on the ground.”

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