When someone is unable to walk, our minds go to the logical place—that person must be getting around in a wheelchair. However, what if owning a wheelchair is cost-prohibitive?
Richard St. Denis saw this firsthand in 1997 during a missionary trip to Mexico. Long before this trip, Richard had lost his ability to walk. Although he had been advocating for people with disabilities in the U.S., he was not prepared for what he saw in Mexico.
Before they left, the director of the mission asked Richard to bring one wheelchair to give away to someone who needed it in the rural community they'd be visiting. Once there, Richard found himself Inside a little chapel, where "people were coming in, crawling on their hands and knees and using branches as crutches," Richard tells TakePart.
The last person to enter the church was a 17-year-old girl with polio. "Leti was basically strapped to her mother’s body," Richard says. The wheelchair ended up being a perfect fit for her. "She was such a joyful little girl, and then she got the wheelchair and her smile got even bigger," Richard says.
After giving the wheelchair away, Richad asked himself: "What about the others?" He returned to Colorado and began collecting used wheelchairs to give away to disabled kids and adults in Mexico. Three years ago, he founded the World Access Project to further his mission and has since left his life in Colorado to take up permanent residence in Mexico.
We give most of our volunteers handkerchiefs because we know they’re going to break down in tears.
It was important for him to make this transition, he says, because he wanted to be there to fix the chairs if needed and help new wheelchair users become independent and active. "I’ve been very involved with wheelchair sports the whole time I’ve been in a wheelchair, and it's helped my life a lot," Richard says. "Now they can get exercise and feel good about themselves."
Richard has employed several disabled people from the community at World Access Project's home base in Mexico. "I wanted to provide employment for people with disabilities because it’s very hard for people with disabilities to get work," he says.
Richard was chosen as one of the 2011 CNN Heroes, and he says donations have increased since the announcement. However, additional funding, wheelchairs—especially for kids—and volunteers who want to take a trip to Mexico to give away wheelchairs are always needed.
"People come down, just as I did, with no idea what to expect, and they see the smiles, the changed attitudes, the mothers who cry because their lives are going to get easier...We give most of our volunteers handkerchiefs because we know they’re going to break down in tears."
"It changes their lives, like it did mine."