Overcoming obstacles, helping others do the same

There’s a neighborhood in Antigua, Guatemala where a pick-up basketball game starts every Friday evening. A handful of locals usually come out to watch. It’s an intense, rough game—sweat, blood, tumbling, no mercy. Part of the intensity comes from this group of co-workers’ blowing off steam after a hard workweek. It’s all the more riveting because all the players are in wheelchairs.

The men, all paraplegics, work for Transitions Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides vocational and health education to Guatemalans with disabilities. Transitions provides employment opportunities through two main enterprises: a print shop and a wheelchair shop. That’s right, a wheelchair shop. The primary business of Transitions is making wheelchairs from scratch. It manufactures off-road wheelchairs, refurbishes other types of chairs, and fits and builds prosthetic devices.

Jennifer Smith, an occupational therapist from Minnesota, recently visited the Transitions headquarters in Antigua. Coming from the state-of-the-art facility of Sister Kenny at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, she was amazed by “how they do so much with so little.” The supplies in their shop were very basic: steel tubing, scraps of vinyl, an industrial sewing machine, and a solitary sketch of a wheelchair design. “I watched as one employee started to sew scraps of material together to make a cover for a foam seat cushion,” says Jennifer. “No measuring, he’d just start sewing.” From these rough outlines, the employees craft sturdy, agile chairs that can navigate the cobblestone streets of Antigua and the steep hillsides of surrounding villages.

Some of their design knowledge comes from the training at San Francisco State University that a group of them attended back in 1997. The course, on wheelchair design techniques for the Third World, was sponsored by Whirlwind Wheelchair, an organization that strives to make wheelchairs available to everyone in the developing world who needs one, aiming for “maximum personal independence and integration into society.” Those from Transitions who were trained have passed their knowledge along to new employees.

Jennifer (and two other therapist volunteers) spent one day at Transitions, sharing some of their occupational and physical therapy expertise with the staff and modifying wheelchair seating systems for several patients. Shortly after arriving, Jen hopped into a van with Alex, the president and co-founder of Transitions. The van was modified with hand controls so that Alex, a paraplegic himself, could drive it. They traveled to a nearby village to pick up a man who needed a new chair. When they arrived, Jen taught the man how to transfer himself from his old chair into the vehicle by himself. The man had no feeling from his ribs down and had never done this before. It took a few attempts and a lot of upper body strength, but he succeeded.

Back at the shop, Jen fitted the man with a newly refurbished, lightweight wheelchair donated by Susan Hagel, a Special Olympian and fellow therapist at Abbot Northwestern. Susan donated three of her previous chairs, which are top-of-the-line but had been stored for several years. Thanks to Penn Cycle of Woodbury, Minnesota, the chairs received upgrades, including new wheels, tubes, hubs, and repairs to the frame, so all they needed once in Guatemala were minor customizations for the recipients. The lightweight chairs provide much more mobility and freedom to travel the rough terrain of the area.

For Jennifer, it was an incredible experience to see these men’s resourcefulness in action. “They were able to travel the bumpy streets, hop curbs, balance on two wheels, no problem — skills few people with disabilities ever have to learn in the US.”

This considerable operation was started by just two people: John Bell, an American with a background in education and disabilities, and Alexander Galvez, a young man from Guatemala. John met Alex in an Antigua orphanage where he was disabled and suffering from bedsores. John taught Alex and his caregivers to better care for his condition, and helped him to gain life skills. Alex is president of Transitions and manager of all of its operations. He is a strong, capable leader who struggles to fund essential programs for people with disabilities. To Jen, Alex embodies what the Transitions Foundation is all about: “overcoming obstacles in life, and creating opportunities.”

Before Jennifer and her colleagues left that day, the Transitions guys asked them to join their game of basketball. So Jennifer and the two other volunteers strapped themselves into a few of the basketball wheelchairs and took their turn spinning around the court. “I had a few shots that weren’t even close,” she said. “These guys were good and they showed no mercy!”

Transitions Foundation
Whirlwind Wheelchair

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