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Sending wheelchairs to Katrina refugees

Kim Wagner of Port Orchard asks the Mobility Project’s Jeff Murphy about all the different positions the wheelchair’s foot rests can be adjusted to. Both are among the 12 volunteers waiting to fly to Hurricane Katrina-affected areas. - Photo by Valentina Petrova
Kim Wagner of Port Orchard asks the Mobility Project’s Jeff Murphy about all the different positions the wheelchair’s foot rests can be adjusted to. Both are among the 12 volunteers waiting to fly to Hurricane Katrina-affected areas.
— image credit: Photo by Valentina Petrova

Nearly 100 wheelchairs filled a warehouse-sized building in a Silverdale-based company early this week. The freshly refurbished chairs awaited a truck to load them up and wheel them down to Houston, Texas for Katrina victims. But Hurricane Rita put the breaks on the project.

Two local moving companies, that volunteered to ship the wheelchairs, are on standby.

“If there’s an immediate need we can cover it in a heartbeat,” said Lisa Murphy, vice president of The Mobility Project.

In preparation Monday, a warehouse that normally would be the welding shop of Holmes Mechanical Industrial Construction was full of wheelchairs and spare parts. Jeff Murphy, Lisa’s husband and also of The Mobility Project, gave a tutorial there to a handful of volunteers in the early afternoon.

The mobility project, an 8-year-old Bremerton-based non-profit organization, distributes wheelchairs in impoverished areas abroad.

“It’s almost impossible to live in the United States and not get a wheelchair (when you need one),” Jeff explained to the six volunteers. “In a foreign country there ain’t just no way. That’s why we started distributing wheelchairs in third world countries.”

When Katrina hit, he added, the electrical parts of many power wheelchairs were damaged beyond repair, rendering them useless.

A power wheelchair can cost between $15,000 and $20,000, Lisa said.

And while insurance will usually cover the cost of a replacement wheelchair, the paperwork trail can stretch on for a long time.

“We just want to address the immediacy and the need,” Lisa said.

And that is why The Mobility Project is sending the truck-full of chairs as well as 12 local volunteers, including four staff members, to Houston.

“We don’t need translators (this time) and that’s great,” Jeff said. “We’re just thrilled to be able to do this.”

And while in some ways this trip will be easier, in others, it proved rather challenging.

Lisa, who stayed in the office while Jeff coordinated volunteers working on the refurbishment, tackled red tape and touched base with several organizations in Houston, including the Bar Association there which houses some 10,000 hurricane refugees and was the first to put the call out for wheelchairs.

A Texas church is setting up distribution centers and securing lodging for the volunteers. Jeff said the team will utilize the set up.

“When you start unloading the truck it gets really, really confusing,” he said. “We are real particular about how we do it and dignity is a real big thing.”

Innerfaith Ministries of Houston has offered to store the wheelchairs and take over the distribution should the process prove too slow and The Mobility Project-organized volunteers need to return to the Pacific Northwest.

The Murphys are not sure what to expect when they get to Houston. The hurricane season, still in full swirl, may still derail the wheelchair project.

“(They say) if you want to make God laugh, make a plan, but at least we’re ready,” said Jeff, gazing at the warehouse of wheelchairs which local volunteers refurbished last weekend. The Mobility Project usually sends the donated wheelchairs to another non-profit organization that does the refurbishment. There was no time to do that on this short notice.

It would have taken two trained people with power tools two weeks to get as many chairs repaired, said Jeff who co-owns Sound Mobility, a local wheelchair business.

“Probably every bit of this came from Seattle and Kitsap,” he said, referring to the chairs, a handful of oxygen tanks and a few piles of canes, walkers and crutches gathered from nursing homes and rehabilitation centers in the county and greater Puget Sound area.

Several plastic bags full of clothes are labeled with “women’s” or “men’s” or “boys’” or “girls’” signs. Those are going on the truck to Houston as well, presorted for more efficient distribution once on site.

Joni Smith’s daughters Emily, 13, and Sarah, 9, had worked on separating the donated clothes during the weekend. The girls, who are home-schooled, were at the warehouses again Monday, helping assemble wheelchairs, while other local students were still in class. Joni said the project had warranted shifting their school schedules around.

“It’s kind of like a puzzle fitting the pieces together,” Joni said, sifting through boxes full of spare parts.

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