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Nonprofit provides gift of mobility

By John Geluardi, Daily Planet staff
Tuesday November 20, 2001

Global provider of wheelchairs to disabled launches prototype in town 


The Wheelchair Foundation chose Berkeley as the city to launch a prototype campaign that has set the “obtainable goal” of providing the gift of mobility to the 100 million disabled people worldwide who need wheelchairs.  

In an attempt to reach that goal, the Danville-based nonprofit foundation announced a one-week drive to collect broken down or unused wheelchairs or accept donations for new ones. The drive begins Nov. 25 and ends Dec. 2. If the Berkeley donation drive is successful, it will be used as a model to launch a national campaign. 

“People get very excited about this program because for a relatively small amount of money you can have a profound and lasting impact on a person’s life,” said Fred Gerhard, the distribution manager for the Wheelchair Foundation, which has an office on Center Street near Oxford Street. “The results are very tangible, you literally transform a person’s life in a second.” 

Since the nonprofit’s inception 18 months ago, Gerhart has already distributed 33,500 wheelchairs to disabled people in 80 countries. He added that it was entirely possible to provide new or used wheelchairs to the estimated 100 million people worldwide who could never afford one. 

“It’s not like other problems, such as cancer, where millions have been spent, but there is still no cure in sight,” Gerhard said. “This is a finite problem and an obtainable goal. All it takes is money.” 

The foundation is currently matching each donation of $75 so that a new, $150 wheelchair can be delivered to a disabled person in the many countries the program serves. In addition, the foundation picks up all the shipping and administrative costs so every cent of a $75 donation goes directly to the purchase of a wheelchair.  

Broken-down or unused wheelchairs are sent to be refurbished in the South Dakota State Penitentiary.  

“There are thousands of people in this country who have very expensive wheelchairs sitting in their garages or attics,” Gerhard said. “With just a little care, new ball bearings, a little oil and reupholstering, they can become a gift from heaven.” 

The Wheelchair Foundation was founded by developer and philanthropist Kenneth Behring. Behring was inspired to found the nonprofit during a 1999 trip to Eastern Europe and Africa where he personally delivered shipments of wheelchairs. Behring saw first hand how the wheelchairs transformed people’s lives and was inspired to create the Wheelchair Foundation with a personal donation of $15 million. 

The goal of the foundation is to help people who have completely lost or partially lost the use of their legs in economically depressed and war-torn countries. According to Gerhard, in some of these countries the average monthly family income is less that $200, which makes ownership of a wheelchair impossible. 

Without wheelchairs, those who don’t have use of their legs can spend their lives entirely dependent on relatives to carry them around. Others do the best they can with broken-down skate boards or by attaching wooden blocks to their knees so they can drag or vault themselves forward on their hands.  

“Others are just completely forgotten about,” Gerhard said. 

During a lunch meeting on Monday, several organizers passed around photos from an October trip to China during which 720 wheelchairs were distributed. The passion they bring to their work was apparent as they exchanged stories about the people who have had their lives changed by the program. 

“Here’s a picture of woman in her 70s who lost one of her legs in an a 1976 earthquake in Tang Shan, China.” said Niloofar Nouri, President of the Persian Center. “This is the first wheelchair she has owned in all that time.” 

One of the reasons Berkeley was chosen to launch the wheelchair drive is because of the successful money-raising efforts of local developer Soheyl Modarressi, president of the Oxford Development Group. 

After returning from a trip to his native Iran during which he visited a hospital with 700 patients and only two wheelchairs, Modarressi was inspired to raise money to combat the problem. He partnered with Niloofar Nouri president of the Persian Center last April to raise funds and soon found out about the Wheelchair Foundation. 

The owner of the Santa Fe Bar and Grill, Ahmad Behjati, agreed to donate the use of his restaurant and a three-course meal and Modarressi and Nouri organized a benefit of 150 people during which they raised $75,000. The Wheelchair Foundation matched those funds and as a result 500 new wheelchairs were shipped to Iran last Saturday. Another 500 will be shipped in 2002. 

“The response of the people Berkeley was incredible,” Modarressi said. “Businesses and people of all walks of life wanted to donate money. That’s what I love about Berkeley.” 

Modarressi and the Persian Center have set a goal of shipping another 2,400 wheelchairs by the end of next year. Their next campaign will provide wheelchairs for Afghanistan, which has been ravaged by war, not only today, but for the last 20 years. According to Gerhard, there is one land mine for every 291 people in the impoverished country. 

Wheelchair Foundation Ambassador Sharman Reecher said the foundation is especially seeking donations from corporations and organizations. 

“Where else can you buy holiday gifts that really help people, make you feel good and are completely tax deductible?” she said.  

Gerhard, who has traveled to over 25 countries in the last 18 months said that despite the demanding schedule he still thinks this is one of the most exciting projects he’s been involved with.  

“I have the best job in the world,” he said, “I get to fly around the world and give wheelchairs to people who need them.” 

For more information about the wheelchair drive or the addresses of the four Starbucks that will be accepting donations call (925) 736-8234. Corporations or organizations that are interested in finding out more about the program can call (925) 275-2170. Or go to