MEXICO CITY Ivan Huerta's life was rich with hope and opportunity about a year ago. The young Mexican had a pretty wife with a generous, easy smile. Together they were expecting their first child. Maybe more would follow.
So Ivan worked hard, carving out a living working at a store in Mexico City. He was a self-reliant man who did all he could at the time to support his growing family. But life's anticipated rewards soured for the Huertas in a random, violent instant. Ivan was shot in the neck during a robbery attempt at the store. The injury left him essentially paralyzed from the waist down. When a baby girl arrived six months later Ivan felt almost as helpless as his newborn daughter.
"Life has indeed been very depressing; it's hard to get a job now," Ivan said.
Time will tell if he walks strong again, but a bit of hope has been restored. On Dec. 10, Ivan joined hundreds of other poor, disabled people at Mexico's National Center for Rehabilitation. There they each received a sturdy, easy-to-maintain wheelchair that will provide them with one of life's most fundamental needs: mobility.
The wheelchairs were gifts from the Church and the Wheelchair Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides wheelchairs to tens of thousands of poor people across the globe. The ongoing partnership between the Church and philanthropist Kenneth E. Behring and his Wheelchair Foundation continued Dec. 10 with the delivery of more than a thousand wheelchairs in Mexico City. Representatives from the Church and the Wheelchair Foundation then continued south to Costa Rica, delivering hundreds of chairs to needy people in that Central American nation.
Like Ivan, each wheelchair recipient has a story to tell. Some were born with a severe disability. Others were injured later in life by a car accident, disease or maybe a medical mishap. Such tragedies stretch far beyond a single person's ability to use his or her legs. Entire families are impacted.
A new wheelchair and the independence it offers may be the vehicle to new opportunities for Ivan and others.
"With this chair I hope my life can improve and I can help [support] my baby," he said.
A Friendship Begins
The recent wheelchair deliveries in Mexico and Costa Rica are just two chapters in the ongoing partnership between the Church and Wheelchair Foundation. Its beginnings stretch back some three years ago when Church leaders asked Mr. Behring, a successful real estate developer, if he could find space on his private plane to drop off 15 tons of canned meat for refugees in Kosovo. As an addendum, Church leaders asked Mr. Behring to deliver a few wheelchairs to Romania.
During the wheelchair drop-off, Mr. Behring spoke with a local doctor who told him of the many disabled folks in Third World countries who could not enjoy many of life's most basic experiences because they could not walk. Touched by what he heard, Mr. Behring began focusing much of his philanthropic efforts on the creation and administration of the Wheelchair Foundation. With generous help from agencies such as the Church, the Wheelchair Foundation began placing thousands of wheelchairs in countries worldwide.
"When you give people these chairs, they grab your hand: they thank you; they very often say a prayer and they always smile," said Mr. Behring during his Aug. 15 commencement address at Brigham Young University, where he received an honorary doctorate.
"Most of us think of a wheelchair as a confinement but to millions of people it is not confinement. It is freedom. Freedom to move, to go to school, to get a job. A chair is hope. Self reliance. Independence. It is dignity."
Irma Aguilar can't recall a time when polio was not her constant companion. Now 53, she contracted the disease when she was just 2 years old. Still, she has made a life for herself, moving about Mexico City with the use of crutches. Like many of the recent wheelchair recipients in Mexico, she arrived at the rehabilitation center Dec. 10 struggling to place one foot in front of the other. Others came in rickety old wheelchairs. A few were simply carried by a loving parent or friend.
"Now this chair is a huge help," said Irma, who plans to use her newfound mobility helping others with disability, including the older folks who she says are often forgotten.
Contributions of love, service
Seeing hundreds of disabled people placed into reliable wheelchairs "has been a very emotional thing," said Bishop Richard C. Edgley of the Presiding Bishopric, who presided over a small group of Church representatives traveling with the Wheelchair Foundation to Mexico and Costa Rica.
Yet his thoughts were not limited to the chair recipients. He also considered the thousands of Church members many from humble backgrounds themselves who had made donations to the Church's humanitarian fund, making it possible for the Church to participate in programs like the Wheelchair Foundation.
"The [Church members] have reached to these people in Mexico and people all over the world through their generosity and contributions and through their extension of love in so many ways," Bishop Edgley said. "It has been a great time to reflect on what's really important in this world."
The Church's involvement in the recent wheelchair delivery mission went beyond monetary contributions. Dozens of honor students from the Church-owned Benemerito high school outside Mexico City were on hand at the Mexico placement to help recipients settle into their new chairs and move them about quickly.
"The Church teaches us the principle of service and it's fun being able to help the kids get into their new chairs," said 17-year-old Berenize Moltalo, a Benemerito student.
Elder Richard H. Winkel of the Seventy and president of the Mexico South Area was touched by the students' giving spirit.
"They know the importance of service. . . they brought a great spirit to the event," Elder Winkel said. "The students are like the young people of the Church: great examples."
Relief Society General President Bonnie D. Parkin, who was part of the Church traveling party, echoed Elder Winkel's sentiments.
"The young people were just exceptional," she said. "Happiness just radiated in their faces."
Meanwhile, several full-time missionaries were on hand in Costa Rica greeting disabled folks and their families as they arrived at the National Palace and pulling out tiny allen wrenches to adjust chairs.
Elder Winkel's counterpart in the South America North Area, Elder Claudio R.M. Costa of the Seventy, spoke at the Costa Rican delivery ceremony and thanked the Wheelchair Foundation and Costa Rican leaders for their friendship and cooperation.
"We are happy to be with them today, opening doors of hope for many of you here today," Elder Costa said. "We feel love for you because we are all brothers and sisters."
Amos David Navarro wept after settling into his new chair for the first time. Standing above 18-year-old Amos was his mother, Carolina Aleman. A low-income, single mother, Mrs. Aleman has supported Amos each day since he was born with a paralyzing tumor in his spine. Unable to afford a wheelchair, Amos crawls on his hands and knees about his home in Cartago, Costa Rico. Simply moving from his bedroom to the bathroom has been a daily, tiresome chore. Today, Mrs. Aleman's back aches from the years of carrying her son about when he ventured outside their home.
"With this new wheelchair my son can now get out and visit friends and relatives. Now he can go to soccer games," Mrs. Aleman said. "We're very, very grateful for this gift."
Expressions of Gratitude
Elected leaders in Mexico and Costa Rica thanked the Church and their friends in the Wheelchair Foundation for their generosity. Mexican President Vicente Fox and Costa Rican President Abel Pacheco both participated at wheelchair placement ceremonies in their respective nations, along with their wives.
"Starting today, some 1,400 Mexicans will be able to count on reliable equipment that allows them to be mobile," President Fox said. "I would like to recognize the Wheelchair Foundation and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because of their joint effort with the Mexican people who are trying to support people with [disabilities]."
Mexico's First Lady, Marta Sahagun de Fox, added her gratitude: "It's wonderful that in the midst of so much pain, [many] can now find a better way of life."
During the Dec. 12 ceremony at the Costa Rican National Palace, President Pacheco recognized both the Church and its partner, the Wheelchair Foundation.
"With this [gift] you are giving comfort, confidence, mobility and happiness to so many human beings," President Pacheco said. His wife, Leila Rodriguez de Pacheco, said the wheelchair placement missions capture the spirit of the Christmas season.
Church Humanitarian Service Director Garry Flake, who has worked on the front line of several wheelchair distributions, wishes every Church member could experience the first-hand joy of placing a disabled person in a sturdy new wheelchair.
"It's more than just physically giving them something," Brother Flake said. "It's a spiritual experience to realize that members of the Church, through their donations, have assisted a family that they'll never know but have changed their lives forever."
Following the Costa Rican wheelchair placement, Brother Flake continued on to South America to participate in several more wheelchair delivery missions.
Ana Fernanda Gonzalez's bright eyes and giggly grin almost double as magnets whenever a camera passes by. She's the sort of little girl who poses for a photo then announces she's ready for the next shot.
Little Ana's mother, Martha Gonzalez, admits her 5-year-old daughter plays the ham whenever a camera's around. Such spunk has helped Ana and her family endure years of hardship. The child was born in Mexico with a spinal condition that doctors say will prevent her from ever walking. Yet Ana seemed to relish her new-found independence the moment she sat in her new tiny red wheelchair.
"Now Ana can move about the house and go to school," said her mother. "She's already learning to read."
"I like my new wheelchair," Ana added. "Now I can play with my friends and cousins."
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