From Local missionaries deliver wheels for people with disabilities in Kenya:

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Brendan Crowley

Between the eastern shore of Lake Victoria and the Kenyan-Tanzanian border is a complex that includes a medical center, a home for orphaned and vulnerable children, and a school — the Kenyan Relief Academy.

The long, rainy season had just begun when Elsie Heller arrived in Nairobi in mid-April as part of a group on a mission trip to the academy. The academy complex is less than 250 miles west of the Kenyan capital near the town of Migori, but with bridges and roads washed out, the trip took 11 hours.

Heller and her group, including three others from Columbia, were delivering hand-cranked PET wheelchairs designed by the Columbia-founded nonprofit Mobility Worldwide to carry disabled people on and off the pavement — a necessity in rural areas with rocky and muddy roads. Over two days in late spring, the group gave out nearly 200 carts to people with physical disabilities who came from all over the region.

People came to collect their carts from as far as Mombasa, a coastal city in eastern Kenya about 20 hours from the Migori compound, said Steve James, who started Kenya Relief. A group of about 10 children came in one truck from Machakos, a 12-hour drive.

“They left with those carts piled up; it looked like the Beverly Hillbillies with their furniture piled up on the back of their truck,” James said.

Moving toward preventative care

Among other missionaries, the clinic hosts 2 of varying teams of varying specialties each year with about 24 people on each team. In a three-day medical clinic, a team will perform between 50 and 80 operations, James said.

His long-term goal is a comprehensive health care system in Migori County, but for now, they just intervene when someone’s medical problem has become so severe it requires surgery. James envisions a comprehensive health care system that would begin with maternal health care and vaccinations, and would include proper laboratory testing and imaging systems as well as physical therapy, James said. Preventative care also could limit the need for mobility carts, James said.

He plans to focus on addressing issues like foot injuries that can lead to disabilities that make the carts so important.

“A lot of those disabilities could be treated with proper orthopedic care,” he said. “We’ll be adding orthopedic surgery to our list of specialties.”

Joy in the freedom of movement

Everyone who came to claim a cart had made arrangements in advance. The logistics of finding people who needed carts from hundreds of miles away and arranging for them to come pick one up were left to the organization’s Kenyan staff. Some of them live with physical disabilities themselves, James said.

Local staff members spent months reaching out to potential candidates and making sure the carts would be a good fit for them. Staff follow up later to make sure the carts are working well for everyone.

The missionaries were there for the grunt work — lugging the heavy chairs through the mud and rain, and adjusting the seats for their new owners. Heller, a Mobility Worldwide volunteer, said she was especially impressed by a group of young physical therapy students who were unfazed by the driving rain and kept the cart distribution on schedule. A deeper impression was left by the people she met who, by American standards, lacked material wealth.

“Everywhere we went, people are just as happy as we are with our materialistic belongings,” she said.

Though the happiness of the people she met was distinct from material desire, Heller described the joy people expressed when they picked up the equipment that would allow them freedom of movement. She remembered parents carrying children — some who had never walked and never would. She thought about what the carts would do for the children, and what it would do for their parents who had been responsible even for moving their children from one spot to another.

Stately support

The missionaries attracted the attention of the First Lady of Kenya Margaret Gakuo Kenyatta, who traveled to the academy on the second day they were there to see if its work was worthy of government funding.

James flowed with praise for the First Lady, who leads a campaign to reduce maternal and infant mortality in her country. He said Kenyatta is also interested in improving the lives of people living with disabilities.

“She actually asked me if I can get those carts,” James said. “That’s when I contacted Mobility Worldwide in Missouri, and they jumped on it.”

Heller said some have praised her for her missionary work since she returned, but she doesn’t think she did anything praiseworthy. She said James is the one who deserves praise.

“Rather than wallowing in self-pity like we like to do, he made something,” she said.

Supervising editor is Mike Jenner.