by Scott McDermott
Ten years ago, I was part of a small group of local Rotarians who went to the Huatulco area of Mexico to do something amazing — deliver 240 wheelchairs to local residents. The delivery had a massive impact on our lives, and led to deliveries supported by Sylvan Lake Rotary Club along with others, in Belize, Philippines, Africa, Ukraine, Afghanistan, and other places as well.
A little over a year ago, a Christmas party conversation led to research and a decision to return to Mexico for a 10 year anniversary delivery.
Fundraising support was massive — over 400 wheelchairs were purchased, and a large group of local Rotarians booked flights to head south and change the world.
Twenty-six Rotarians from Sylvan Lake, Red Deer, Okotoks, (and one from Northbrook, Illinois) made their way to a small town on the very southern end of Mexico to meet Bonnie and Dale Ganske (two Sylvan Lakers who have moved to Huatulco for the winters, having fallen in love with the place during the first trip ten years ago).
There were two big differences between this delivery and the one I was part of ten years ago: First, the large number of people on the trip made a massive difference in work load, and second, we had two weeks to deliver the chairs instead of one. Both differences allowed us all time to relax and enjoy a partial holiday.
The first delivery occurred in the town where we all stayed, called La Crucecita, one of the towns in the Bays of Huatulco. Right off the bat, things were exactly the same as ten years ago, and infinitely different at the same time.
We arrived at the delivery site which was a large concrete slab with a big white canopy that had been erected for us by the municipality, complete with over a hundred folding chairs. A massive pile of boxes with over 100 wheelchairs was waiting for us to open and assemble.
The team meeting was quick, and we split into groups to handle different elements of the delivery. My first job was to teach and facilitate the assembly of the chairs. With an eager group ready to roll up their sleeves and get going, the lesson was fast and the setup faster. In about an hour, all 115 chairs were opened, protective plastic removed, foot rests on, leg straps in place and tool in the back pocket. Chairs were sorted in sizes and we awaited the arrival of the dignitaries as we all soaked in the moment.
Part way through assembly of the chairs, I remember stopping everyone to have them witness the arrival of one of the wheelchair recipients — an older lady was being carried out from the back of a pickup truck, in a plastic lawn chair, by two men. It hit home all of a sudden, how her life was about to change, and a few of our eyes got a little moist as it became abundantly clear what we were doing here.
As people arrived we were constantly amazed that some did have a wheelchair, but they were in such bad shape, or home made. One chair was retrofitted with a plastic patio chair, while one elderly lady sat in a chair which had no rubber on the wheels at all. We saw several of the wheelchairs from the original delivery, still in service too, having been welded, re-upholstered and held together.
Soon politicians and Rotarians had said their official words of thanks and acknowledgement and the delivery started. It was almost funny to watch everyone trying to get photos and witness the spectacle in the first few moments. I wondered how the first person in the chair felt about all of the attention.
Having been a part of this a few times before, I left this moment to the new folks, and headed over to an adjacent area to prepare for phase two of my job; training people on how to use a new wheelchair. It’s something we learned during the first delivery ten years ago; some of these folks have no idea how to use a wheelchair, having never seen or used one before.
As people were wheeled over to me, the interpreter quickly caught on and seemed to be learning as much about the chairs as the people we were teaching. It was one humbling experience after another as the morning wore on and person after person was wheeled out in their shiny, new, red wheelchair.
Rotarians were beaming, the Mexican people were beaming, it was a banner day for all of us, but especially the recipients.
Throughout the two weeks, moment after moment flowed by and captured our hearts and more often than not, set a little salt water free from our eyes.
In the town of Pochutla, I heard my name being called by Neil Swensrude, our Wheelchair guru, who’s been a part of, or organized every wheelchair delivery set up through Central Alberta in the past ten years. His nickname is ‘Neilchair’ for a very good reason.
He needed help moving an adult man from a plastic lawn chair to his new wheelchair. This is my favourite part of the job: meeting someone, smiling, then getting in close and lifting them into their new chair. It is so gratifying to be able to help, and really helps me appreciate my strong legs and back and my ability to move. The man was missing one leg, and the other leg was not healthy. It oozed fluid through the bandage underneath, through his pants, and was clearly painful.
Sitting in his new chair, the man thanked us repeatedly and we chatted in broken Spanish when Trevor Sigfusson walked up, having watched the situation unfold. He reached up and pulled off his brand new Rotary hat, and handed it to the man saying, “you look like you could use a new hat.” It was true. The man’s hat was a wreck. It has been sewn together a few times, the back velcro part was in tatters and no longer connected. The brim was fuzzy and frayed and coming apart.
It’s important to note that Trevor, like me, shaves his head – so hats are critical for us in the Mexican sun. The magnitude of that was not lost on the moment and it tipped the emotions of the man in the chair over the edge and he welled up and cried as he thanked us repeatedly. It was like the wheelchair was one thing, he had waited for 4 hours to receive it, and had known for over a month it was coming, but the hat too? Too much! As Trevor walked away to recompose himself, I wheeled the man over to the banner for his photo record smiling so much my cheeks hurt.
As the waiting area seats emptied, one of my favourite parts of each day began, in what I like to call ‘the walk ons’. People who must have been driving by in a cab, or got a call from someone, or were sitting in a chair somewhere a few blocks away, when someone wheeled by in their new chair. I can only imagine the conversation.
“Wow! where did you get the wheelchair?”
“There are some folks over there giving them out!”
At that point, the person hobbled, wobbled, rode or was brought to us, and asked if we had any extra chairs. We did. We always did. We made sure of it.
While we were cleaning up in Pochutla, a man tugged at my sleeve and asked me a question. Quickly an interpreter was found and I discovered he was asking about a walk on. Coming up behind was his family with his Mom in tow, who was limping along as best she could.
After paperwork and the follow up was finished, mom sat in a new chair and looked upon her family as the heroes they were for getting her this gift. For me, it’s the greatest feeling to watch that pure, unexpected gift being delivered and received.
Then there was a gentleman who didn’t want to place his shoeless feet on the foot rests of his new chair, because he didn’t want to get them dirty. The wheelchairs hold such value for them, and they mean so much, not only to the recipient, but to the whole family. Mothers who have had to carry their physically challenged child well into adulthood can suddenly be released from that weight. Children can get to school, adults can go to work, it really does change a lot.
Prior to leaving for Mexico, we sold Frisbees with a Rotary logo on them to raise funds for the trip and to serve as giveaways. They were immensely popular, but more as a cooling fan, far more than a toy!
We were blessed to have along with us on this trip, two Sylvan Lakers as well; Matt Ventura, age 14, and Hanna Sigfusson, age 11, watching with amazement and helping enthusiastically as each scene unfolded.
I don’t know if we will ever know fully how such a trip will impact them, but they have told me, for one, how impressed they were with the patience of the Mexican people. Many of them had to travel for several hours, down from the mountains, to arrive at the town square. Then they waited two or three hours to get a chair, then return home, without ever saying a word about it taking so long, or being hard or anything.
Hanna remarked how wonderful it was to see how happy the children were, even though they had so little. For all of us, these things are not lost, and seeing the children really hits home.
It needs to be acknowledged upon closing, how much selfless work has gone into this project. So many people worked for months and months, raising funds, coordinating schedules and creating and updating plans, to get all of this to come together at once.
Central Albertans donated generously, schools rallied, people gave donations in honour of friends or relatives, and every bit of it helped. The Rotarians covered 100 per cent of their own costs to fly to Huatulco, rent the vans and stay in local homes so that every penny raised went right to the wheelchairs. To everyone who contributed in any way: thank you!
Participating from Sylvan Lake were Scott, Hilary and Kaden McDermott, Trevor and Hanna Sigfusson, Paul and Matt Ventura, Mark and Kendra Custance, Jack and Andrea Van Delden, Bonnie and Dale Ganske and Nadine Coyne.