Free Wheelchair Mission: The Miracle of Mobility
By Dianne Anderson
Most people never think about their legs until they can’t get around as they used to, which is where Free Wheelchair Mission comes to the rescue.
In the past 20 years, the Irvine nonprofit has given away 1.3 million wheelchairs, the most distributed wheelchairs around the world.
Nuka Solomon, a first-generation American whose family is from Haiti, said their nonprofit has just over 30 employees, but is tiny and mighty.
On Thursday, July 22, their annual Miracle of Mobility is bringing out big names to support the cause. The event starts at 5:30 p.m.
“We have gotten some celebrities that are endorsing it, actor Mario Lopez, comedian Michael Jr. We have a Paralympic champion in a wheelchair [Mallory Weggemann] and she will be participating in the Tokyo Olympics. We’ve got a great lineup,” said Solomon, CEO of Free Wheelchair Mission in Irvine.
Last year, their virtual event reached all 50 states with over 55,000 people tuning in, and they raised $1.5 million to serve up more wheelchairs. This year, hosting is virtual again, and they will add a local in-person watch party at Hangar 24.
For Solomon, the program hit home when she returned to Haiti to help one boy whose leg was amputated at six years old in the devastation of 2010. A beam fell as he tried to get out of his house during the earthquake.
He had been on crutches for eight years, walking 30 minutes by foot daily to go to school.
In the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, amputations soared. Crutches were a luxury and the terrain is hard on the disabled.
“It was a great moment of pride for me to give him his first wheelchair, knowing that I could have been that boy’s mother. My parents immigrated, and knowing that my family in Haiti still sees our free wheelchairs there every day, its really awesome,” she said.
Built to last, the wheelchairs are making a direct impact in places like Haiti and other underdeveloped nations where sturdy tires are needed to navigate harsh territories, hills and wet sands.
“In these countries, we need to factor in hillside and rocks and sometimes humid climates, beaches, like in tropical areas like Vietnam. And also just the poverty level,” she said.
Since the nonprofit started, they have freely distributed in 94 countries. Currently, they’re in over 30 countries, working with about 55 distribution partners.
But with so much going on geo-politically these days, COVID-19 shutdowns are worldwide. Other countries are impacted because they don’t have access to vaccines like America, and are ravaged by the virus.
Lockdowns were more strict in other countries last year than in the U.S, which to some extent slowed distribution to certain municipalities and rural areas, or limited distribution partners and staff.
Lately, things are getting back on track with deliveries.
“In a lot of cases, there were certain countries in Africa where we felt it halted things a few weeks or a month because they weren’t having as massive surges as we had here, and they were able to regroup,” she said.
Now in Haiti, other concerns top COVID-19 and impact humanitarian aid. Major gang kidnappings and danger for the last nine months or year culminated in the recent destabilization due to the assassination of its president.
Interestingly, but typically, the gangs have a certain level of respect for their distribution partners.
“When they see our logo, they kind of understand that these people are giving aid to the poor, [saying] we’re going to leave them alone. But, it’s still very dangerous,” she said.
Regarding pirating, she said it hasn’t been an issue with their deliveries.
“Thank the Lord none of that has happened. One of our partners has an understanding, they are on high alert. Gas hikes and shortages impact partners because gangs control the paths to get to the gas,” she said.
Their wheelchairs are manufactured new in Asia, and given to non-governmental organizations, churches, nonprofits, clinics and hospitals they work with. Some partners specialize in occupational therapy, others juggle several humanitarian aid projects, like digging wells, family planning and orphanage and wheelchairs are just one aspect.
All who apply for the wheelchairs must meet standards, and able to receive one container minimum shipment, about 500 wheelchairs per container.
“They must have some experience in imports for the sake of not wanting to work with rogue people on the black market. It’s all done for free, but once it gets to their port city, they’re responsible to take control and get it to whatever town city, or village,” she said.
They have shipped an average of 100 containers annually, with about 90 containers through COVID, averaging 178 wheelchairs per day.
“There’s a lot of poverty and disease in the world, people are aging. Talk about vaccines, to this day there are people that get polio in Africa and end up in a wheelchair,” she said.
Worldwide, she said only a fraction of people that need a wheelchair are able to get one.
“The biggest thing is that there are 75 million people in the world who need a wheelchair, only 5% are able to get one. There is a huge need,” she said.
For more information or to register for the event, www.MiracleofMobility.org or call Free Wheelchair Mission