Missouri Charity Builds Specialty Wheelchairs for Poor in Developing Countries

“PET Wheelchairs’ Give Gift of Mobility to Thousands in Developing Countries”

“Worldwide some 21,000,000 persons in developing countries crawl on the ground or must be carried about because of handicaps,” says Mel West, a retired pastor from Columbia, Missouri. “If all those persons were put in a row, they would form a line of crawling persons 28,000 miles long.” This riveting fact has become a mantra for West, United Methodist minister and co-founder of the PET-International wheelchair ministry.
PET is an acronym for ‘Personal Energy Transportation,’ prosthetic wheelchairs designed to hold up in the rugged terrain of many developing countries. To date, the non-profit’s 22 shops in the United States, plus an affiliate in Zaire, Africa, have built 39,000 PETs at a cost of $250 each and given them free of charge to persons with disabilities in 95 developing countries. West initiated the PET Project back in 1994 when missionary Larry Hills was serving in Zaire on the subcontinent of Africa. One day while walking through the tundra, Hills stumbled across a mother dragging her body through the weeds. She had a baby strapped to her back and two small children at her side. The scene catapulted Hills’ sensibilities into overdrive. He contacted Mel West, a pastor in Missouri known for his extensive outreach programs, to design a wheelchair that could navigate rugged terrain and accommodate the mother’s needs. Moreover, it had to be indestructible. West tackled the challenge. He approached Earl Miner, a retired airline engineer, and together they designed the prototype for today’s Personal Energy Transportation wheelchair (the PET). This specialty chair was constructed of forged steel parts, solid wheelbarrow tires that could not blow out, and wood which is replaceable in most areas of the world. They shipped three prototypes to Hills with instructions to “put these in the worst place you can find, and see if they pass the test.” The hand-cranked model proved most effective. Today West is passionate about PET International’s mission: “It is not right, it is not fair, it is not just, that persons born on this earth with all its resources should be forced to crawl on the ground all their lives, or have to be carried about by others just because they stepped on a landmine or got polio or became incapacitated.” Since 1995, the PET has evolved into three styles that accommodate various disabilities – the crank PET for those with arm strength to navigate; the Push PET similar to modern wheelchairs, only more rugged; and the Pull PET for a caretaker to pull the severely disabled. A Push-Pull PET has the capacity to do both of the latter. When adults receive a PET and discover their potential, they use them to make a livelihood with income-generating activities. Examples range from shining shoes to making deliveries to selling newspapers, flowers, balloons, etc. Some install a cooler on the PET’s cargo, creating a mini-market. Students who could not go to school suddenly are in the classroom with other students. Some even matriculate to college. PETs are especially popular with disabled farmers who, after many years of inactivity, can haul produce to market and help with tasks on the farm. The PET’s adaptability enables many to earn a sustainable living. In this way, PETs restore their dignity and social status. Calls for PETs come daily from around the globe. The non-profit collaborates with partners such as Hope Haven, American Leprosy Missions, Lions Clubs, the U.S. Navy, individual church agencies, and other trustworthy distributors to deliver PETs to their destinations. The Need Continues Letters of thanks from recipients are as profuse in their gratitude as their reasons for need: Brain damage, ‘shot in the spine,’ snake bites, spina bifida, amputation, ‘veins exploded,’ polio, landmines, gangrene, birth defects, gored by a bull, ‘got shot in crossfire.’ Landmines, too, riddle Southeast Asia. When a person steps on a landmine, shock waves from the blast move up their bodies at seven times the speed of a high-velocity bullet forcing debris and bone fragments into body tissues. Ninety percent of their victims are civilians. Children are especially vulnerable because they sometimes mistake landmines for toys. Today, polio remains a threat in developing countries. In 1952, a polio epidemic swept the U.S. Of nearly 58,000 cases reported that year, more than 3,000 died and 21,269 were left with mild to disabling paralysis. Many were kept alive in iron lungs that encased their bodies to help them breathe. Had it not been for Dr. Jonas Salk who refused to patent his polio vaccine so schools could administer it, en masse, to children, thousands more would have died. Because of Salk, the disease that crippled so many finally became history in developed countries. A PBS documentary worded the situation succinctly: “Apart from the atomic bomb, America’s greatest fear was polio.”
As is so common in developing countries, the Salk vaccine never made it to Alecia Tessenia from Honduras. Like so many others, she contracted a fever at age two and, for the next twenty years, crawled on the ground and seldom left home. After receiving her PET, she could engage in everyday activities, a momentous step forward for this young woman. “Getting a fever and never walking again” is cited as a ‘reason for needing a PET’ in the records of polio victims. In spite of global efforts to eradicate polio, the disease runs rampart in the poorest regions of the world. Extremities of victims’ bodies become paralyzed. Many are sequestered in their homes or beg for a living. With proper treatment and medication, PETs help to compensate for their disabilities, enabling many to make a living and retain their independence. PET-International’s mission is to provide simple, low-cost wheelchairs for the poor at no cost to the 21 million in need. West and others who deliver PETs relate how new recipients pedal their PETs excitedly or cry for joy when receiving one. “Getting a PET is the most important day in many of their lives,” West says. “Their gratitude is overwhelming.” West shakes his head, wondering if the impossible is possible, but he is a believer. To that end, he and dozens of volunteers in America’s 22 PET shops work ardently, day after day, building and fund-raising to ship thousands of PETs to the needy each year. “Rise up and walk” echoes the Christ they follow. The non-profit collaborates with partners – churches, Hope Haven, Lions Clubs, American Leprosy Missions, the U.S. Navy, and other trustworthy distributors to get PETs to their destinations. For further information, or to provide materials, labor, or funds to help build PETs, contact PET International, 503 East Nifong Blvd. #186, Columbia, Missouri, 65201-3717, or call (903) 881-5663. Their email is pet@petinternational.org. To contact the Affiliate shop nearest your area, go to www.petinternational.org/affiliates online.
“The AlphaPET Book,” an informative compilation of PET deliveries told in story and photograph, has been written by West for both adults and children. It is available, postage pre-paid, for $15.00 per copy, or $14.00 for two or more. If picked up at the PET shop in Columbia, readers save $2 postage and handling. To contact Mel West directly, address letters to PET MO-Columbia, 1908 Heriford Rd., Columbia, MO 65202 or email petproject@giftofmobility.org.

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Sources “Jonas Salk.” http://www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/Jonas_Salk.html
Maynard, Kathy. PET-International, Columbia, MO, 2013. PET-Kansas. Travel-service trip to Honduras. PET-Kansas Board. 2007-2013. West, Mel. AlphaPET Book. Columbia, MO, 2011. West, Mel. Interviews, emails. Spring-Summer, 2013

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