Wheaton Rotary collects wheelchairs for people worldwide needing mobility
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Angela Adkins, former president of the Rotary Club of Wheaton, greets a woman during a wheelchair delivery in Hermosillo, Mexico.
Courtesy of Wheaton Rotary Club
Angela Adkins doesn't live in the past. As the executive director of National Alliance for Mental Illness-DuPage and recent past president of the Rotary Club of Wheaton, she has quite a bit to do in the present.
However, Adkins collects wheelchairs. And that requires a bit of explanation.
"I went to live with my parents when I was 3. I was adopted when I was 5," she said.
She is careful with her language. It's a story she's told many times.
"My adoptive parents fostered hundreds of children. I was one of three girls they adopted," she said. "I learned very early to share. Nothing was mine alone. But I always felt incredibly blessed."
Adkins' hair falls in a smooth, silver bob. She has a French tip manicure, bright blue eyes and wears frosted pink lipstick. There is a faint trace of British accent in her voice. Somehow, it makes her seem both posh and friendly.
"One of my sister's had Huntington's," Adkins said, explaining that it is a fatal degenerative disease.
"She began showing signs of the disease as a teen. By the age of 23, she'd deteriorated to the point where she needed a wheelchair. I remember being devastated for her. It was very tough to watch this vital young woman confined to a chair. She died when she was only 32."
Many years later, Adkins happened to attend a presentation by a man looking for donations for Wheelchair Foundation. With her history, wheelchairs stood for confinement and tragedy. Not a favorite memory, but she listened to the story with increasing interest.
Ken Behring, a wealthy business man from Freeport, regularly traveled the world in a private jet. Flying into Africa, he often carried donations of medical supplies. On one trip, he delivered wheelchairs to a hospital.
With poignant gratitude, an elderly man remarked, "Now I can go outside in my yard and be with my neighbors."
Within a year, Behring had established the Wheelchair Foundation. In six months, 20,000 chairs had been delivered to 65 countries.
The story resonated for Adkins.
"It was a light bulb moment. All my life, the memory of my sister's transition to the wheelchair had been painful. Hearing how the chair improved these people's lives gave me a whole new perspective. All I could think was, I had to help other people receive that gift of mobility," she said.
Since then, Adkins has helped with eight deliveries totaling more than 3,000 chairs to countries all over the world, including Chile, Mexico and Nicaragua.
"It's a very humbling experience," she said. "You get on the road about six in the morning. The whole town comes out to greet you. Often they make food, sharing the little they have. They make you feel like royalty. People will be sitting, waiting for hours, even days for the chairs to arrive, having traveled hundreds of miles."
Over the years, the chairs have been redesigned and restructured for the hard wearing conditions under which they will be used. They are lighter than other wheelchairs, with bigger, sturdier wheels that are harder to puncture.
"When people get into these chairs for the first time, they have huge smiles on their faces. It means the difference between a life spent indoors and sunshine, a chance to earn money to help their families. It transforms a life in an instant," she said.
Each chair costs $150 to sponsor. Each container, filled with close to 300 chairs, costs $44,000 to fill and ship. More than 150 countries all over the world have already received shipments. The next destination is Suriname in South America.
Worldwide, Rotary clubs have been very involved in the program, often partnering with a club in the host country to help coordinate deliveries. The Wheaton Rotary Club has accepted the challenge of sponsoring a container.
"Our goal is to raise the money by the fall of this year and deliver the chairs in the spring of 2013. We have a good start. But we need help," Adkins said. "Individuals can sponsor a chair or groups — high school key clubs, book clubs, local businesses, anyone. This creates an instantaneous, life-changing effect on someone.
"I was raised to give back," she said. "But, you know, I get a lot of pleasure out of helping. I feel incredibly lucky to do what I do."
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