Our club delivered a shipment of 128 wheelchairs, eight walkers and a number of canes to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico last week - the latest shipment in support of a project begun in 2000.

The Rotary Club of Camrose delivered a shipment of 128 wheelchairs, eight walkers and a number of canes to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico last week.

The Rotary Club of Camrose has been making the shipments every year since 2000, when Bob Bell, Larry Sharuga, Jerome Stetar and Don Rebus drove to Puerto Vallarta with a school bus loaded with wheelchairs. Today the wheelchairs are flown by Air Transat.

"We have delivered approximately 1,200 wheelchairs to Mexico over the last 11 years," said Rotary Club of Camrose member and past president Ron Grue.

The wheelchairs are picked up by the Rotary Club in Puerto Vallarta and distributed to those who require them in Puerto Vallarta and other communities within a 150 km radius. 

"The wheelchairs are very popular," said Rotary member and past district governor David Taylor. "They go to individual families in which there is a disabled person."

Grue was in Mexico last year during Christmas when the wheelchairs were delivered and has been able to see first hand what a difference they have made.

"It was so rewarding to be able to give them at a Christmas party there. One of the boys who received a wheelchair was being carried everywhere by members of his family. I saw the look of relief on the face of his parents because they knew they would have more freedom and that their son would be able to get to places he wanted to go more easily."

Wheelchairs are a bit of a rarity in the rural and poorer areas of Mexico, partly because of the cost. A used wheelchair valued at between $300 and $500 in Canada would be worth thirty to forty thousand pesos in Mexico  - an exorbitant sum considering the fact that the average daily wage for a Mexican worker is about 70 or 80 pesos.

"The government doesn't help them," said Grue. "There are not many nursing homes and the  accepted standard is that the elderly are taken care of by the family. It's a concept that they haven't changed yet."

The wheelchairs are given to the Rotary Club of Camrose by the provincial government.

"The government doesn't like to hand out wheelchairs here because of liability issues, so they give them to us," said Taylor. "Once we have collected enough we send them on to Mexico."

The cost of flying the wheelchairs to Mexico is between four and five thousand dollars.

"Air Transat is very good to us," said Taylor. "They have agreed to fly them down there at a very fair charge."

The Rotary Club in Mexico receives wheelchairs from other clubs in Canada but tends to like the ones it receives from the Camrose club the best.

"They really appreciate the ones they get from us because they are strong but they are also light," said Taylor. "A lot of the wheelchairs that come from overseas are very heavy."

The Rotary Club of Camrose became involved in the wheelchair project in 2000, when Rebus and his wife, Chris, attended a meeting of the Rotary Club in Puerto Vallarta. It was at that meeting that they heard the story of another Rotarian, Ivan Applegate, who, after being paralyzed from the neck down in a diving accident at the age of 17, went on to form the Disabled People from Mexico Civil Association with the purpose of reintegrating persons who had disabilities, in an active and productive way, back into normal society.

Expressing interest in the work that was being done, Don and Chris were invited to a meeting of the association, where they were introduced to 100 persons with disabilities.

"It was a very moving experience," Rebus recalled. "When we asked if there was anything we could do they told us they needed a bus so the disabled people in Puerto Vallarta could be picked up and brought to the occupational therapy building. They also said they needed some medical equipment."

Just days after pitching the idea of assistance to the Rotary Club of Camrose, Rebus received word that Pacific Transport Company, owned by Bob Coborne, was willing to donate a bus from its Wetaskiwin compound.

In the years since the first wheelchair shipment, the Disabled People from Mexico Civil Association has made a number of noticeable changes. There are more wheelchair ramps and wheelchair accessible buildings than there ever were before, and a number of new programs have been started. As a result persons with disabilities are being seen in a new light.

"All the wheelchair ramps that you see in Puerto Vallarta now are a result of Ivan and his association," said Grue. "Once they were able to get a few people on the bandwagon they were able to do more things as well."

The admiration Grue has for Applegate is obvious.

"He is an amazing man and an inspiration to many others," he said. "It is amazing what he has been able to accomplish with his handicap."

SOURCE:  Dan Jensen, The Camrose Booster, February 13, 2011, page 4