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Sunday, Nov. 18, 2007
Changing lives with castoffs
By TOMOKO OTAKE
Michiyo Yoshida is a prime example of that green mantra, "Think globally, act locally." But the nonprofit organization she cofounded to send used wheelchairs to developing countries has also enabled members to "think globally and act globally."
To date, in fact, the Sapporo-based volunteer group Go! Fly! Wheelchairs, which Yoshida, a 58-year-old university lecturer, was instrumental in starting nine years ago, has sent 1,441 wheelchairs to 59 countries. But what makes this initiative unique is the way it enlists outbound travelers who volunteer as "mules" to check in the wheelchairs at airports as part of their luggage.
On arrival at their destinations, the travelers then deliver the wheelchairs directly to the people and facilities in need of such life-changing castoffs. This way, weighty wheelchairs — even those for children tip the scales at 12 to 15 kg — become affordable to recipients as all air-cargo fees are avoided.
Not only that, but the involvement of individual travelers who have approached the group to lend their services has made direct interaction between them and the recipients possible.
But Yoshida, who hit on the idea after learning that many wheelchairs in Japan sit idle after users grow out of them, has come a long way since she set up Go! Fly! Wheelchairs with Kazuyori Yagyu, a pediatrician who was then a medical student at Hokkaido University. In those days, when Yoshida herself carried the group's first wheelchair to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, where she went as a conference interpreter, she didn't even know she could check in a wheelchair without packaging it.
"I wrapped it up, and it became so heavy and bulky that it was really hard to carry around," Yoshida recalls. "I had such a hard time that I felt I would never want to do it again."
Over the past decade, the group's activities and networks have expanded worldwide, with new donations constantly arriving and 120 to 130 donated wheelchairs constantly passing through their Sapporo warehouse at any time. The group today has 400 fee-paying members and many more who participate in a wide range of events, such as workshops on improving volunteers' skills at reconditioning old wheelchairs. And because the operation is run by many volunteers, each wheelchair takes on a sentimental value for everyone involved, Yoshida said.
"Each wheelchair goes through the hands of about 10 individual volunteers before it is delivered to the recipient. These include the donor, people who collect the wheelchair from the donor, people who donate their time and skills to repair it, staff in our office who coordinate with the recipient's group, and then the traveler who takes the wheelchair with him or her," Yoshida explained.
"Because so many people are involved in the process, many feelings and sentiments also fly with the wheelchair."
One of the biggest hurdles for the group has been the 20-kg limit on free luggage imposed by airlines. Because many deliverers also have their own personal luggage, there have been occasions when they have been turned away at airport check-in counters — or faced with sky-high penalty charges — due to excess weight. Happily, though, the group has been able to persuade some airlines to turn a blind eye to excess luggage weight for the social mission. Thai Airways, for example, is particularly accommodating, and now travelers with the airline can fax or phone in advance to get written authorization for a free-of-charge excess baggage allowance, said Bijay Giri, a 32-year-old Hokkaido University student from Nepal who has acted as a liaison between the group, Nepalese students in Japan and doctors and agencies in Nepal. He also took three wheelchairs with him when he went home for a short period a year ago.
"I donated the three wheelchairs to a community-run rehabilitation center for the physically handicapped in a small agricultural village next to my hometown of Biratnagar in eastern Nepal," he said. "One of them — a man in his 40s or 50s — was so excited that he jumped into the wheel-chair and immediately started moving around in it."
While the majority of wheelchairs have gone to other Asian countries, with more than 300 having being sent to Vietnam and some 200 to Thailand, many have ended up in places where wheelchairs are hardly ever seen.
Masae Tsujioka, 39, for example, took one to the West African country of Burkina Faso in May, flying from Sapporo with a discount air ticket that required three changes along the way — in Nagoya, Dubai and Casablanca.
Tsujioka, who says she has long been interested in international development work, went to the little-known country for a three-week study tour, during which she visited various facilities and decided herself where to donate the wheelchair.
Wheelchairs are so rare in that former French colony that workers at local hospitals did not seem to know that models for children even existed, Tsujioka said, noting that local children with disabilities are unable to attend schools because the lack of wheelchairs means their parents have to carry them everywhere on their backs.
After she had researched the welfare and lifestyle conditions around the country, Tsujioka decided to donate the wheelchair to a university-affiliated hospital in the capital city of Ouagadougou.
"I donated it to the hospital, hoping that it would be used by many children," said Tsujioka, who is now set to return to Burkina Faso as a "Japan overseas cooperation volunteer" next March.
"When I go back, I would like to see how it is being used — and also take another one with me."
Since the group has placed so many wheelchairs overseas, its tasks now include helping to keep them in good working order. So, due to its success, the group needs not only wheelchairs and deliverers, but also hard cash to buy parts and train people in recipient countries in maintenance skills, Yoshida said.
"Right now, what we would appreciate most would be financial sponsorship," she said.
To contact Go! Fly! Wheelchairs, phone or fax (011) 242 8171 or visit business4.plala.or.jp/tondeke/