Over and over again, Lonny Davis has witnessed a heart-breaking sight in Third World nations: men, women and children crawling on dirt roads as they make their way to free wheelchairs he and other Rotarians have brought. However, their dire situation does a 180 degree turn when they receive a device – once discarded in America and refurbished – that gives them dignity through mobility.
For well over a decade now, Davis has been the organizer of an effort that is part Christian ministry and part humanitarianism to collect, refurbish and distribute mobility devices. Members of the Rotary District #5220 in Central California have become involved to “really boost” in the collection effort, said Davis.
“It’s an opportunity to participate in something that God’s involved with; so there’s a sense of partnership, there’s a sense of responding to something God cares about and so for me that is an incredible privilege,” said Davis. “People talk about ‘oh it’s such a great thing you’re doing.’ My life has been enriched by this.”
Davis has gone on most of the distributions through Hope Haven, which have taken him to Central and South America, Romania, Palestine and the Caribbean. Others on the team include Rotary Club members and doctors and students from the University of the Pacific who assist in wheelchair seating.
Only two distributions occurred this year but four are planned for 2013, including a visit to a primitive area of Nicaragua next month, a drop into Cochabamba, Bolivia in April. Davis also wants to visit Honduras and Colombia but funding has yet to be cinched.
The Rotary Club’s international foundation has been a godsend for the effort. Distributions cost about $40,000 but only $10,000 has to be raised locally because of Rotary’s matching grants.
Davis was turned onto the humanitarian about 15 years ago when friend Rick Costa of Oakdale invited him to tag along on a Mobility Project wheelchair project in Mexico.
“I saw the impact that receiving mobility had on this family,” said Davis. A mother brought in her paralyzed 13-year-old daughter on her back. “She’s 13 – she’s almost as big as the mom. When we were able to seat this girl in her chair, you could just see the dignity pour into this girl. Imagine you’re 13 years old and all this identity stuff going on and having your mom carry you around all the time. Well, you could just see the impact this had on the girl and the mom was absolutely ecstatic. She was set free. After 13 years of carrying her daughter she could finally go someplace without carrying her daughter. And I thought, you know, I can do this.”
Davis built a network, initially collecting wheelchairs at his Davis Guest Home on Hatch Road in Ceres and eventually building a warehouse on Nadine Avenue. When enough chairs are collected, they are shipped to a prison in Iowa where inmates clean them up, replace worn or broken parts, recover with naugahyde and repack the wheel bearings.
Today about half of his waking hours are spent on promoting his program, collecting wheelchairs and making contacts.
Davis estimates that his warehouse has processed 15,000 to 20,000 wheelchairs and walkers.
“We’re not even scratching the surface,” said Davis. “The World Health Organization estimates that 20 million people in the world need wheelchairs and mobility devices. There are a lot of crawlers.”
Liz Hosmer of Ceres, the governor of Rotary District 5220, was “sold” on the project when she went on a distribution in Guatemala about five years ago. Hosmer now makes a presentation on the program to the 54 clubs in the district.
“It really had an impact on her and one of the stories she tells is about these guys in San Marcos who came crawling into the distribution and they’ve got their legs and ankles wrapped with rags and anything they can find because if they don’t they’ll just shred their extremities by crawling on the cobblestones.”
Many of those men, they learned had been paralyzed from being shot or work-related accidents.
Davis was on a July distribution of 200 wheelchairs in Oaxaca, Mexico when an ambulance wheeled up with a nine-year-old. The boy had been the victim of a drive-by shooting two weeks prior and the boy’s mother was devastated by the ordeal, which included surgery and a tracheotomy. Davis prayed with the family and then helped retrofit a chair for the boy, now a quadriplegic.
“He needed to get up because he was going to get pneumonia if he continued to lay flat,” said Davis, who spent an hour to adjust the chair to an incline.
“We can never get enough kids’ chairs,” said Davis. For that reason, Hope Haven now manufactures three sizes of children’s chairs in Iowa. The chairs are all assembled by people who are in wheelchairs themselves, thanks in part to a matching grant given by Rotary Club International, obtained by Davis’ project partner Nick Mascitelli.
Some prayer and creativity is involved in getting the chairs from Ceres to Iowa and then shipped to other nations. Davis said an Iowa trucking company that runs Blue Bunny Ice Cream to California is often called upon to transport chairs on the return home for $3,000. From Iowa the chairs are shipped in containers to other nations. Food for the Poor assists with reduced shipping costs and the U.S. Navy has occasionally helped with free shipping and an exemption from customs.
Davis said the public is welcome to donate unwanted wheelchairs or mobility devices by dropping them off at Davis Guest Home, 1878 E. Hatch Road, Ceres, or by calling Davis at 402-7900. The organization also accepts monetary donations to help defray distribution costs.