JUNEAU, Alaska — When Alaskans travel to Mexico, it's usually to escape the often times bleak grey and white winter landscape for a sun-soaked vacation.
Others go for a different reason: service.
A group of local Rotarians recently embarked on a weeklong journey to Colima, Mexico, in that vein. They will be distributing wheelchairs, a high-price item that many can't afford, to the community.
"We've been saving ... pennies and nickels and dimes and quarters in little glass jars to purchase wheelchairs from Canada, and they send an entire tractor trailer full of wheelchairs, and we assemble them and hand them out for people," Brenda Hewitt, the president of the Rotary Club of Juneau (informally called the "Downtown Club"), told the Empire Monday. The trip was organized by the Glacier Valley Rotary Club.
Thirteen clubs across Alaska, including those in Juneau, raised $26,000 to purchase a sea container full of wheelchairs to send to Colima. A matching grant from the Rotary Foundation of Rotary International provided another $17,000. In all, $42,000 was raised to buy 280 wheelchairs.
"That's pretty amazing," Warren Russell, the downtown club's international chair who helped coordinate the project, said. "It's all volunteer dollars."
The trip marks the third time local Rotary Clubs have partnered with The Wheelchair Foundation, a nonprofit organization based out of Danville, Calif., which aims to deliver free wheelchairs — and what they call "the gift of mobility" — to the estimated 100 million people worldwide who need a wheelchair but cannot afford one.
According to its website, The Wheelchair Foundation purchases custom built wheelchairs in bulk at a discounted price from manufacturers in China and sends them as containerized freight to different areas of the world through a network of non-governmental organizations. The foundation has shipped and delivered more than 895,000 wheelchairs worldwide with help from groups, such as Rotary Clubs, that sponsor containers of 100 to 280 wheelchairs.
Juneau groups go a bit further — and more hands-on — by flying to the intended destination, "getting boots on the ground" and helping to deliver the wheelchairs personally, Russell said. Two years ago, about 10 members from local Rotary Clubs went to Guadalajara, Mexico, and hand-delivered the wheelchairs. That trip was organized by Rotary District 5010, which covers all of Alaska and the Yukon.
Last year, another group trip (this time organized by the downtown club) attempted to go to Russia to hand-deliver the 280 wheelchairs they purchased, but problems with visas prevented them from going.
"They (the Russian government) said they needed more time to process them," Russell said, adding with a chuckle, "It kind of felt like we had enough time. But we didn't get through the red tape to allow us to get folks over there in time."
The trip was still viewed as successful though since the wheelchairs eventually made it to Novosibirsk, and surrounding areas.
This year, between 18 and 26 people from Juneau flew down to Colima on their own dime on Sunday to help deliver the wheelchairs. The group is slated to be back Saturday.
Russell said the Rotarians are being housed and fed by a local Rotary Club in Mexico. While they are there, he added, they will also be partnering with Project Amigo, a nonprofit based out of Novato, Calif., that strives to improve access to higher education and literacy among impoverished children in Colima.
Russell noted that Rotary Clubs in Juneau have helped purchase and deliver nearly 900 wheelchairs collectively in the past three years.
"It's very rewarding," he said. "It's one of the avenues of service, so it's Rotary doing what it does best: helping others."
Information from: Juneau (Alaska) Empire, http://www.juneauempire.com