My Volunteer Journal: Episode 27 – Cleaning up with Wheels for Humanity

dhernandez“It is estimated that more than 100 million children and adults need wheelchairs worldwide but do not have them either due to lack of money or availability.” – factoid from Wheels for Humanity’s brochure. Watching the orientation video at Wheels for Humanity’s headquarters I get a better idea of what life is like if you need a wheelchair, but can’t afford one. Quite simply – you live on a blanket or drag yourself around. Handicap children without ambulatory devices are generally homebound, that means no school, no playing outside, and no interaction with other children. Sometimes family members will use a blanket as a sling if they have to transport a handicapped member of their family. It’s a life of little dignity or independence.

As I watched the video and images of these trapped people flitted across the screen I squeezed the edge of the table and tried not to cry. What a horrible first impression I would make if I dissolved in the first fifteen minutes- the basket case that can’t keep it together during a film.

Wheels for Humanity is a head slapping good idea. So obvious, so simple, brilliant in it’s execution, and beneficial for all parties. United Cerebral Palsy Wheels for Humanity cleans, repairs, and ships used wheelchairs to developing countries and distributes them to thousands of needy individuals. Each year they keep 226,000 pounds of solid waste out of landfills and they are giving people the freedom of unencumbered movement!

I called UCPWFH (long abbreviation –wish it was a word) the day I heard about them and a few weeks later I arrived for the Tuesday morning volunteer orientation. Orientation was about fifteen minutes and generally painless (except for the heartbreaking video with a happy ending). Then it was on to…mmm…the thrilling…no…the much needed…yes better… the much-needed job of cleaning wheelchairs. To be fair David Hernandez, warehouse manager and volunteer coordinator extraordinaire, did offer to let me repair some wheelchairs as I had a rudimentary knowledge of tools but I was only going to be able to volunteer for a few hours. I wanted to do the most good in the short amount of time I had.

David and I lifted wheelchairs onto a workstation so each was at eye level and then I sat my bottom in a comfy swivel chair and began cleaning. Two of the wheelchairs I worked on were for little children. I used a toothbrush to clean the tiny little footrests on one that looked like a baby stroller. As David helped me lift it down he said, “This one might be going to Africa.” He smiled as he wheeled it down the hall to the other wheelchairs awaiting shipment. You can tell David LOVES his job. He’s been around the world delivering wheelchairs to needy kids, and someday he hopes to go to Africa. He almost skips when he talks about fitting the wheelchairs to each child. David might be one of the luckiest men in the world because he does something he loves and he is making a measurable difference in the world everyday.

To amuse myself while cleaning the next wheelchair I imagine it going to Africa, riding around on arid soil, some kid racing his brothers in it. I haven’t been to Africa yet so I was using images I’ve seen on the news. Maybe someday, like David, I will be lucky enough to see Africa and do tremendous good at the same time.

After each of the wheelchairs is cleaned a little American flag sticker is affixed to it. The sticker is a way to say hello from America, like a greeting card, it says we care. People like David and UCPWFH volunteer Steve Cota, who has volunteered over 600 hours for the organization, care.

Wheels for Humanity will travel to Mexico, Indonesia, Palestine, Gaza, Zimbabwe, Costa Rica, Nigeria, and many other countries in this year alone. They change lives and prevent waste. To learn more visit their website at