Lauren's adventure in Ecuador

Monday, February 19, 2007

No words can do it justice…

But if I had to pick one it would be “transformational”, both for the wheelchair recipients and the donating team. This past Monday I began a four-day trip with Colorado Springs Rotary members and members of a truly inspirational organization called Adopt-a-Village (formerly known as Hope Alliance). I was so impressed and inspired by this wonderful group of people. It was a motley crew, and each person had their strengths and something to contribute to the group. They all came with the single goal
of distributing wheelchairs to disabled Ecuadorians, and for many it was their third trip to South America because they had done similar projects in Peru in prior years. I thought my Saturday experience was great, but the four days that we spent delivering chairs in Santo Domingo, Bahía, Portoviejo, Ambato, and Latacunga made an impression on me that I had never anticipated. This trip made me so grateful and so painfully aware of how fortunate I am to have the gift of complete health and mobility. The warmth, kindness, and true appreciation of everyone we came across, be it other Rotary clubs, wheelchair recipients, or their family members, had a way of filling me with a sense of purpose that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before. The wheelchair recipients we met all had unique stories, and some just made me want to scream with anger when I learned why they were in a wheelchair. I had the opportunity to do a bit of interviewing and translating into English, which was wonderful way to learn about the stories of many of the recipients. I think the cases that struck me the most were those of young women because their reality hit all to close to home. I could very easily be in their condition. It made me consider the injustice of chance and circumstance. Why did I receive the good fortune of health, education and a stable life while other young women find themselves immobile and painfully poor? I deserve these things no more than they do. I met one young girl (26) who simply got sick one day. The next day she woke up paralyzed. For the past seven years her loving and dedicated brothers have transported her by carrying her wherever she needed to go. With the chair she said that she can now sit and have a small store maybe, or better yet, she can do simple but important things, like going shopping for clothes with her mother.

The girl who had the largest impact on me, however, was unable to speak. We all went to a local hospital to deliver a chair to this young woman. We entered the hospital, and just by looking at the quantity of people, feeling the stifling heat, and seeing the dirt on the walls, I knew that I needed to try really hard to put the judgment card aside and just take in what I was experiencing. We entered the room and spoke to her mother and father, who were dutifully by her side tending to her. They told me that she was a perfectly healthy, pregnant 20-year-old girl, and she actually was in such good condition that she walked herself to the hospital to give birth. Due to complications, she had to receive anesthesia for a Cesarean section, but the anestigeologist gave her too much, which not only paralyzed her but affected her mental capabilities as well. This occurred five months ago, and the parents are still paying to keep their daughter in the hospital. They are thousands of dollars in debt, which is money they don’t even have. To make matters even worse, the baby died shortly after birth.

As with anything, we experienced the good and the bad. Fortunately, we saw, in my opinion, many more joyous cases than cases like the one I mentioned above. For instance, we met a law school student who was very excited about his new possibilities for mobility. We met grandmothers and grandfathers who came with their families to receive the chairs. We met young children in need. One boy in particular stands out because he had no legs and only one arm because of a horrible fire that he was in. We met people of all ages and needs, and giving the chairs was a beautiful sight to be had. They were so proud to begin anew, and sometimes their loved ones cried in happiness. I honestly believe that we witnessed countless liberations- liberations of spirits and physical bodies that had been confined for years. In some cases we literally saw an instant smile and transformation as the person lifted their head to face the world with new confidence. Others cried. The touching part was to see this change regardless of how it manifested itself. Some people were carried in on the backs of their loved ones. One man in particular crawled in; he literally came in on his hands and knees. Another was rolled in on a chair that his family had made with furniture wheels on the legs to create a make-shift wheelchair. I just stood in the hallway and watched as a flood of recipients passed by me. How does one go unchanged after seeing so many people who have battled with disability? It wasn’t their need that spoke to me most, however. It was their strength, perseverance, ingenuity, determination, and tenderness. Seeing such varied human conditions spoke to me. They are amazing people.

The organization for this project was remarkable. The U.S. clubs had raised the funds, and the Ecuadorian club arranged for the logistics. Every chair recipient had to register themselves, so when the day came to deliver the chairs, we had exactly the right number of chairs (big and small), which is a feat of organization. It was heart wrenching, however, when people showed up to the events who weren’t registered to receive a chair. In many cases they were worse off than those on the list, but we had to refuse them. I was elated when in some of these cases we could spare an extra chair, but how exactly do you tell a 90-year-old woman that you can’t help her when you look at her obviously abused and almost gangrened feet? It was the reality of the situation, and I think this fueled inspiration to return again.

I had never experienced this kind of humanitarian and philanthropic giving in the past. I think that during this trip we all felt like actualized agents of change. It was simple: we treated others how we wanted to be treated. We gave metal and rubber- nothing more. But human interaction is never that simple, and it’s always greater than the sum of its parts. We experienced humanity. People helped people- again, nothing more. It made me consider how complicated we make our lives sometimes, and how in the midst of noise and haste, we lose sight of the simple importance of looking around us. As many recipients commented, they received new legs. They also received independence, confidence, and a new willingness to positively change their life.

We thrived off of tearing open the wheelchair boxes, assembling the chairs, creating our assembly lines of adjustments and tweaking, and finally, taking Polaroid pictures of the recipients and their families. I know this is painfully cliché, but this week was as much a gift to me as the chairs were to the people I think. I changed because of it. On a final note, after a week of giving of themselves to their last shred of energy, the members of the Colorado Springs group donated a massive amount of clothing to give to a local foundation. The hearts of these people are so enormous that, using the words of a trip member, I don’t know how they continue fitting in their chests.

A huge THANK YOU is due to the North Colorado Springs Rotary club, Adopt-a-Village, Quito Rotary Club, and finally, the Rotary Club of Downtown Gainesville for making this all possible. Pockets of peace and change are possible. They are taking place right before my eyes in Ecuador.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Wheelchair Foundation

I’ve been really busy with my Rotary club lately because their capstone project just kicked off yesterday. In conjunction with a Colorado Springs Rotary club and Hope Alliance, my Quito club arranged for the purchase and delivery of 576 new wheelchairs for adults and children in Ecuador. It has been a huge undertaking for them, as it involves three international organizations, a whole lot of people, and a lot of dinero. I have really been looking forward to this week-long project for many reasons. Firstly, the idea of seeing a matching grant project in action is exciting, and secondly, I lived in Colorado Springs with my sister this past summer, so I was especially excited to work with this North American team. The project officially began yesterday (Saturday) at the Quito city hall. It was an unorganized, chaotic frenzy. There were wheelchairs everywhere and throngs of people lined up to receive them. The city police couldn’t assemble the chairs fast enough. I thought it was kind of ironic that the wheelchairs were shiny red. It made me feel like Santa Claus way too much, and I don’t like the idea of pure charity without some kind of reciprocating effort on behalf of the receiver, so it made me sit and think for a while.

I’m not really sure why, but about five or ten minutes after I arrived I wanted to cry. It wasn’t because the people were horribly poor- quite the opposite actually; many came with their own, albeit used and abused wheelchairs. It also wasn’t because we lacked chairs to give people. We have extras in fact. It also wasn’t because I saw a transformation in the eyes of the people receiving chairs; like I said, many of them had had chairs before. I think I had selfishly wanted to see these life-changing moments with the poorest members of society. I suppose I just felt like we hadn’t found the people in Quito who needed the chairs most. I felt like I hadn’t tried hard enough. I knew that for every person who had the wherewithal and ability to receive the wheelchair in city hall, there were five more people who simply didn’t have the strength, assistance or money to get a chair. I realize that you can only help so many people, and that surely many more truly needy people will go without wheelchairs, but it left me to think. Giving out wheelchairs is easy. Finding the truly needy is the hard part. Seeing disabled children also stung a little more than usual. I think it’s because I saw how much their parents cared for them, and how they were almost afraid to place their kids in wheelchairs. They have been so used to carrying or tying their children to their backs that having the separation of this red object between their needy child and them was a little to much to handle for them. They always had one hand on the handle, one hand on the child. They wanted to enjoy the new apparatus, but I think they were scared of change and ironically felt like they had less control over the care of their child. I think the immensity of the project just overwhelmed me.

After city hall we went to La Comuna, a very poor sector of town. One of the Rotarians is helping to modernize and expand a grade school there, and this would be our second event to give chairs. There were considerably less people, and I preferred this experience because I could really see and meet the people of the community. We gave the majority of chairs to children, and many were so tiny that they didn’t even fit in the chair, but they will grow into them in the coming years. We saw a traditional folk dance put on by some girls of the community, and I enjoyed the interchange between the Rotarians and the community. It was a beautiful event. I noticed, however, that some of the designated chairs for the Comuna remained parked without a new owner. I asked, and apparently there were transportation problems and the people would be really late. Better late than never, because they had an entrance that I will never forget. I could hear the truck before I even saw it, and for some funny reason I knew it was a Ford. It came peeling around the corner, and all of the family members in the back swung around the corner with it. The man driving literally couldn’t put the car in park fast enough, and he sprinted out. The kids unloaded out of the back, and so did the ladies. I didn’t see anyone in need of a wheelchair, so I was a bit confused. But then I noticed that the kids were maneuvering a wooden plank, and seated like an aged princess was their beautiful grandma. My heart sank. They slowly carried her to the wheelchair, and her eyes were glued to it. I don’t think an earthquake could have broken her gaze. She slowly lowered herself into the chair. He calloused hands that had gripped the wooden plank for ages slowly passed over every inch of the armrests, the wheels, the seat, everything. She literally just sat in her own little paradise caressing the smoothness of her new chair. Her family circled her, a woman obviously adored and loved, and they were speechless.

So this has been the start of a great project. I am planning on traveling with the group during the next four days as we deliver 450 more chairs throughout Ecuador. I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to write about so check back soon.

(Me with Hans Hisgen, a member of Adopt a Village in Colorado Springs.)