Columbia transportation project provides mobility to Nicaraguans in need

Friday, January 20, 2012 | 3:47 p.m. CST; updated 8:04 p.m. CST, Friday, January 20, 2012
Volunteer Bette Rudel watches the completely filled truck pull away from the warehouse Friday. Volunteers coming from several Methodist churches in Columbia loaded the cargo in just under two hours. The contents, including PETs and other necessities, will be sent to Nicaragua.

COLUMBIA — The Personal Energy Transportation Project on Friday afternoon loaded up more than $33,000 worth of hand-crank wheelchairs, clothing and sports equipment in a large container en route to Nicaragua.

Founded in the Rev. Mel West's garage in 1995, the volunteer-based organization's mission is to provide "mobility and dignity to those in Third World countries who have lost the use of their legs," according to the organization's website

Items Nicaragua-bound

  • Bed linen
  • Clothing
  • Toys
  • Kitchenware
  • Fabric
  • Shoes
  • School supplies
  • Sports equipment
  • Hand-crank wheelchairs called PETs
  • Walking canes
  • Traditional wheelchairs
  • Crutches
  • Folding walkers
  • Sewing machines
  • Bicycles
  • Handsaws
  • Mosquito nets
  • Shovels
  • Encyclopedias
  • Light bulbs

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West said donations of this kind can change attitudes.

"People who are leg handicapped are sometimes suicidal and depressed, understandably," West said. "But just the pride in being able to support one's family can turn someone around spiritually."

Since its modest beginnings, the organization's volunteers have manufactured and donated more than 30,000 hand-cranked or lever-powered wheelchairs to more than 80 countries after a missionary friend of West, Larry Hill in the Republic of Congo, explained to him the need.

"As we parted (Hill) said, 'I hate to ask but there is one more thing we need. We need a three-wheel, hand-crank wheelchair that will go on these rough trails and roads and has hauling capacity,'" West said. "So, I came home and called my designer friend, Earl Miner, and gave him that need, and in due time he designed the PET."

The PET is a wooden, hand-crank wheelchair built by organization's volunteers.

Rick Ellsworth, one of the 70 volunteers on this project, explained how much a PET could change the lives of the families who receive one.

"Realize that in Third World countries, right now there are millions of people that are literally crawling on the ground. These are polio victims, landmine victims and those with birth defects," Ellsworth said. "They can't support themselves and their dignity of life is very low. So, getting people up off the ground gives them a dignity of life."

Four United Methodist churches in Columbia — Community United, Missouri United, New Horizons United and Fairview United — gathered and packaged the donations for the container sent Friday, which includes 24 PETs as well as traditional wheelchairs, walkers, crutches, clothes, school supplies, sports equipment and mosquito nets. Donations came from across the country for this particular project.

Ellsworth is also the director of mission ministries at Community United Methodist. He said the organization has people in Nicaragua who assess the needs of the community and then ask for goods to target these needs.

Ellsworth said the church has been actively involved with Nicaraguan missions for 25 years.

"We really have a personal relationship with the people, so once you meet the people and the families and the children it just draws you into their lives," he said. "It was a natural move for me to get involved here."

In 2011, the Columbia organization built 1,738 PETs. Since the beginning of 2012, the international organization has shipped two containers, one to Zambia and another to Thailand, according to their Facebook page.

The Columbia group will try to ship two to three large containers of supplies a year. It has been preparing this shipment for almost four months.

"In some ways what we're supplying is a sense of hope," Ellsworth said. "Go to an area of poverty and people can sense that you really care about them, and that brings them up in their world."

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