COLUMBIA — While volunteering for a national veterans program, two local residents thought of an inexpensive and easy way to help World War II veterans communicate their service: the wheelchairs.
Sharon Paulsell and her husband, Steve Paulsell, began experimenting with their design for personalized wheelchair covers in April. The idea then turned into Wheelchair Personalities, and they received their business license in June. The wheelchair covers can be imprinted with a design, photo or logo tailored to the wheelchair user’s preference.
Sharon and Steve both volunteer for the Central Missouri Honor Flight, an organization that takes veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit the memorials of the wars in which they served. The organization gives priority to World War II veterans and veterans from other wars who are terminally ill.
The trips require a lot of wheelchairs because of the age of the veterans and the amount of traveling they do in a single day. Seeing 30 to 50 wheelchairs with nothing to distinguish one from the next sparked the idea for an easy way to personalize them.
"Everybody personalizes their car with (St. Louis) Cardinals or Harley Davidson stickers. People like to do that," Steve said. But wheelchairs are personalized far less often, and retain their institutional look.
The couple prepared a set of wheelchair covers with the Honor Flight logo, cut in different shapes and sizes to fit a variety of wheelchairs. The covers were donated to Honor Flight and have been used on several flights since April.
The couple said they noticed a considerable difference between how people treated the Honor Flight veterans before and after the flights started using the covers. When people knew that the person in the wheelchair was a veteran, they were more likely to initiate conversation, especially to thank the veterans for their service.
"Once people break the ice, they communicate," Sharon said. "We're trying to give people ways to initiate conversation."
That communication is what makes Sharon so excited about her business. The wheelchair covers help by allowing the person using the chair to identify their school, military service branch, or hobby.
When they began investigating the idea, the couple noticed few options to cheaply and easily personalize wheelchairs.
"(They're) black," Sharon said, laughing. "A lot of black stuff."
"Whether they're brown, black, or blue, they all look the same," Steve said.
Sharon and Steve don't use wheelchairs themselves but have gotten a positive reaction from people who do. The couple said they've been told by lifelong wheelchair users how nice it would have been to have a cheap and easy way to personalize their chairs when they were kids.
"We've learned a lot from people in wheelchairs, who use wheelchairs," Steve said.
One of their first customers, Raul Alderete, is the owner and manager of Tequila Mexican Restaurant. Alderete is having Wheelchair Personalities design a cover with his restaurant's logo. He plans to use the cover on his own wheelchair.
"I like to go out a lot, so people will see my logo," Alderete said. "It's good advertising for me."
The wheelchair covers wrap vertically around the wheelchair's back and attach with Velcro. A heavy seam at the top holds the cover in place so it doesn't rotate around the wheelchair's back. During the Honor Flight trips, the wheelchairs were folded, loaded on buses, and had people getting in and out of them about 20 times a day.