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Help on wheels

Fixing, distributing donated wheelchairs is a family affair

SALEM, Oregon — All models and sizes of wheelchairs, walkers and crutches line the driveway to the home of James and Joanna Gaumond, members of the Pringle Ward, Salem Oregon Stake. They are "orphaned" wheelchairs just waiting to be adopted.

Sister Gaumond is a polio survivor diagnosed with post-polio syndrome, a condition that strikes some polio survivors. Over time, she has gradually lost her mobility and is now dependent upon a power wheelchair. Ironically, that wheelchair has also given her independence, "the freedom to do what I wanted, when I wanted and was such a blessing in my life," she said.

Sister Gaumond has served as an adult ambassador for the Easter Seals and as a commissioner of the Oregon Disability Commission. She started a post-polio support group and was State Representative for Polio Survivors. With all Sister Gaumond's involvement in the community, she became acquainted with many people with disabilities and empathized with their struggle to maintain their independence. So nearly 10 years ago, she began loaning her old manual chairs to others after she realized that many insurance companies do not cover the cost of wheelchairs and other mobility equipment. Word quickly spread about Sister Gaumond's loaning system. Soon people began donating their "orphaned" wheelchairs to her. Thus began the Gaumond family's service, "Orphaned Wheelchairs."

The project is a family affair. Brother Gaumond cleans, restores and repairs the donated equipment. Their daughter, Tammy Parent, receives the many phone calls from donors and recipients around the world and their son-in-law, Michel, is the welder. The Gaumond's five grandchildren "test drive" the restored chairs.

The service is completely free and the Gaumonds receive no compensation. They rely on donated equipment to continue their goal, which Brother Gaumond said is "returning independence to those who need it most."

Diana Gelder from Lake Oswego, Ore., is one of the individuals the Gaumonds have helped. A left lower extremity amputee, Diana was able to wear a prosthesis until a March 2001 automobile accident injured her knee. Now she is wheelchair bound. "I think your efforts to provide people with the right of independence are remarkable," she wrote to the Gaumonds. "My husband and I don't make a lot of money. We receive many riches but not as the world would think of them. Thank you so much for the wheelchair. The day of delivery was like Christmas."

The Gaumonds know they could not do this great work alone and have met "angels" who have come to their rescue: USF Reddaway trucking company and its sister companies donate their services to ship wheelchairs and equipment to nearly every state in the continental United States, lacking access only to the Northeast. All of the service's printing costs are donated and a local unnamed businessman gives money for parts and gas. What started as the effort of two people has become the work of many, touching the lives of hundreds.

Last year 325 people in the United States as well as people in Africa, China and South America received orphaned chairs and equipment from the Gaumonds. Recently, they watched a documentary on "60 Minutes" about the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation and Sister Gaumond recognized polio victims without mobility. Subsequent contact to that foundation has led to 100 chairs and dozens of walkers and crutches being sent to the Congo.

The Gaumonds advertise their service in a number of mobility magazines. They have been featured in two major newspapers in Oregon and they network through caregivers, Catholic Charities, Easter Seals and United Way.

"We consider this our mission," said Sister Gaumond.

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