Two churches are on a mission with one purpose: Gather at least 200 wheelchairs, working or not, to send to Guatemala, where many children and adults struggle to get around.
The project has come after several mission trips by members of Trinity United Presbyterian Church in Modesto and First Presbyterian Church in Turlock. The groups have built simple homes for people, distributed food and clothing, ran an abbreviated vacation Bible school program and worked with the nonprofit Bethel Ministries International to distribute wheelchairs.
“Sometimes you see a teenage young man carrying a mom or a dad on his back,” said the Rev. Craig Wright of First Presbyterian. “When they get into a chair that’s fitted for them, and they get mobility, the smiles are such a relief. We see that every single time. The kids with cerebral palsy, whose bodies are kind of twisted, are put in special chairs. It sets the whole family free from being the legs of that young person or that old person. It’s immediately life-changing.”
“People are literally carried in,” added Julie Anderson, a Trinity member who went on the weeklong mission trip for the first time this year. “They have nothing. Many of them are getting a wheelchair for the first time. Everyone was so appreciative. There were so many smiles, so many thank-yous, so many hugs. They are so thankful to get a wheelchair.”
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Bethel Ministries distributed 1,500 wheelchairs in Guatemala in 2013. The organization wants to do the same this year but is about 500 chairs short of its goal. A businessman in the United States has offered to pick up the cost of shipping a container full of wheelchairs, which costs about $6,000, and the two local churches decided to join the effort to find donated chairs.
The wheelchairs can be in any condition, Wright said. Bethel Ministries has a place in Guatemala where chairs will be repaired or adapted as needed.
“Many of the people who work there are in wheelchairs themselves,” he said. “They take our throwaways and rebuild them in the shop there. The really high-end, expensive ones are completely rebuilt, electronics and everything. Even walkers and crutches are needed.”
The wheelchairs can be dropped off at either church. But, added Wright, “I would be willing to drive 30 or 40 minutes to pick some up.”
Aside from distributing the wheelchairs, Anderson said, building three houses during her week in Guatemala was a big highlight.
“Basically, the house is a glorified shed,” she said. “You put a cement slab down. Put up walls. It has metal siding, a door with a lock on it, which is important to them, and two windows. They were 15 feet by 24 feet. The people get a stove and a bunk bed with that, as well.
“The one (my small team) built was for a single grandmother in a wheelchair. It was built on her son’s property; their house was in front and hers was in the backyard. The grandmother’s house was just one room with an outside stove. The bathroom was in the yard – basically a toilet sitting on a hole. But, oh my gosh, they’re just so thankful! There are tears. To them, it’s a mansion.”
The needs of the people in Guatemala are huge, Anderson said.
“There was one boy who was going to have his 17th birthday, and he hadn’t been in school since he was 8 years old,” she said. As in many countries, it costs money to send children to school there, and his family was very poor.
“There are a lot of single moms where the dads have abandoned them,” she said. “Then there is lack of work. A lot of them take in laundry. There was one young woman in her 20s. Her husband had been in a motorcycle accident and had been out of work for several months. Her mom had just died a few months before, and she had taken in her three younger siblings. So here she was, helping her husband get well enough to get back to work, and taking in these three kids.”
Wright said building a home for a family previously living in a lean-to shack is rewarding, “but there’s nothing as rewarding as the wheelchair distribution.”
“People came from all over the country to get them. You get someone carried in on someone’s back and then they get to leave with a wheelchair. It’s pretty astonishing.”