Collecting Wheelchairs, Changing Lives

Story by Kelsey Boyd

According to the World Health Organization, there is a need for an estimated 20 – 30 million wheelchairs around the world. Most of the people with limited mobility have little money and are unable to afford a wheelchair—an investment that, in many countries, costs a year’s wages.

Two local women have recognized this global need and are actively combating the problem. Donna Cutler and Karen Walters, both of Russellville, are volunteering with Wheels
for the World
, a program that provides mobility to those who lack it. The program is part of Joni and Friends, a faith-based organization that aids the disabled, meeting not only their physical needs, but their spiritual needs, as well.

Wheels for the World collects wheelchairs, walkers, canes, and even car seats and baby strollers (for pediatric care) for disabled people in need. Wheelchairs and other equipment are transported to 17 correctional facilities throughout the United States, including one in Arkansas. Carefully trained inmates restore the wheelchairs to like-new condition. The wheelchairs are then shipped overseas and distributed by short- term missions teams who custom fit each chair to its new owner. The teams also give away Bibles, sharing the message of God’s love with others—a message the Joni and Friends International Disability Center aims to share with the world.

The disability center was begun in 1979 by Joni Eareckson Tada, a well-known Christian author, artist and disability advocate. In 1967, Joni had a diving accident that paralyzed her from the neck down. A quadriplegic for 41 years, Joni has accomplished much and inspired many, including Donna and Karen.

Donna became involved with Wheels for the World in 2004 after seeing Joni on Larry King Live. She remembers flipping through the channels and seeing Joni on the television show, talking about Wheels for the World. Something sparked in Donna that evening and she felt a strong urge to get involved with the program.

“God just said, ‘This is the time,’” Donna recalled while watching the show. As she tells people, “God didn’t just open a door, he opened a garage door.”

She called to inquire about the program the following morning and everything began to fall into place.

“I was never more certain about something I was supposed to do…it was crystal clear,” she said.

Everyone Donna spoke to about the program was supportive, from Arkansas’ Wheels for the World regional coordinator to local churches to her own family and friends. Recently, Karen, Donna’s fellow church member and friend, joined the program’s efforts.

Karen had a similar feeling as Donna when considering joining the organization.

“It was like God spoke to me,” she said. “I was never so excited. I realized I was happy.”

Things began working out for Karen, as well. She was able to utilize her contacts all over the world from traveling with her husband, Butch, who is retired from the military. Her former career as church choir and music director gives her access to many people and helps her comfortably speak in front of crowds, which is something both women do often with Wheels for the World.

Donna and Karen travel to churches, civic organizations and just about any other place that will let them share about the program. They show a video, speak briefly and share their personal stories of their experience in a wheelchair with the listeners.

Both women suffered injuries and were paralyzed due to car accidents. Donna suffered a spinal injury 15 years ago, and Karen, a stroke that caused paralysis six years ago. Donna and Karen have grown close to each other through their similar physical experiences, but they have also grown personally in their Christian faith.

“God has shown us that for this particular time, for God’s purpose and plan, he is using us best in a wheelchair,” Donna said. “We are humbled that God uses us in a way that touches people for eternity.”

Since Donna joined Wheels for the World in 2004, she has had many opportunities to further its efforts, including serving on the Governor’s Board for Disabilities and participating in the Ms. Arkansas Wheelchair pageant. Both women are grateful for any opportunity to speak on behalf of such a worthy cause and to give back to a world that has given so much to them.

“All of us have something we can do, no matter what happens along the way,” Donna said. Karen added, “If you’re in the Body of Christ, you have a job to do.”

The women also discussed how the program affects each person’s life as a single wheelchair travels along its way from the giver to the inmates to the distributors and receivers.

“It touches their spiritual souls, too, and that’s the whole point,” Donna said.

During their involvement with the program, both Donna and Karen have seen tremendous support from the River Valley. The women are grateful for the many donations, volunteers, time and energy spent on the program. Renee Wright, a friend and fellow church member of Donna and Karen, plays a key role in local operations and helps coordinate wheelchair drop off and delivery when a new chair is donated. Donna and Karen acknowledged Renee’s tireless help with the program.

The women are constantly pushing the program forward, attempting to reach more people and collect more wheelchairs for those in need. In the future, they plan to hold a community-wide wheelchair drive to raise awareness for the program and bring more wheelchairs, and a message of hope, to a world in need.

The women’s passion for Wheels for the World is evident. They say it is something they will continue to pursue for the rest of their lives, as long as they are able. Donna spoke on behalf of both women when she said, “We will do this until God calls us home.”

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