Stepping into a pair of virtual reality goggles can transport you to another world, or in this case, across the world to Guatemala to see what it’s like for people to receive their own wheelchair for the first time.
At Free Wheelchair Mission’s “Miracle of Mobility Gala” on July 25, more than 600 guests arrived in their best attire to raise money for people across the world who cannot afford wheelchairs, something FWM is trying to change with its humanitarian services that were demonstrated in a virtual reality presentation at the Segerstrom Center of the Arts event in Costa Mesa.
The 16th annual gala raised $1.8 million, according to the global nonprofit stationed in Irvine.
Don Schoendorfer, the FWM founder and president, said he first began developing wheelchairs in his garage in 1999. Today, FWM reaches people in 93 countries all over the world.
Nuka Solomon, FMW’s CEO, said her nonprofit is currently on track to produce 2 million wheelchairs by 2025, after providing their millionth wheelchair to a girl in Peru back in 2017. “We are very proud to say that the organization has grown from a tiny thing out of a man’s garage to being the largest wheelchair-distributing nonprofit in the world,” she said.
According to the World Health Organization, of the 650 million people around the world who have disabilities, 10 percent of them require wheelchairs.
Jennifer Walker, FMW’s director of Marketing, said she was first inspired to use virtual reality as a vessel to tell the nonprofit’s story, having a shared interest of VR with a classmate at UCLA. “We’ve always had to address how do we communicate those stories of the people who receive our wheelchairs,” Walker said. “When this immersive technology came out we thought we could bridge this gap in a truly groundbreaking way.”
The six-minute VR presentation tells the story of three women, capturing every step of their receiving wheelchairs for the first time–all while letting viewers experience the landscape of Guatemala firsthand.
One recipient featured in the video, Lidea Morales, was afraid to leave her home because of her previous wheelchair’s poor condition.
Solomon said the video is one of the best ways they can showcase how much of an impact their wheelchairs have on the people who receive them.
“There’s always been need in the world, but we’ve gotten more sophisticated as a society and they want to touch and feel things,” Solomon said. “Philanthropy has changed and people want to be sure that their donation is going to the right place.”
She added the FWM office in Irvine is a valuable philanthropic hub, although the majority of donations come from private citizens.
Stacy Nagai, FWM’s account manager at HKA Marketing Communications, said the cost of a wheelchair is comparable to any monthly subscription service.
“We don’t have a lot of money in our lives, but where else can you give $80 and that changes a life,” she said. “That’s not a lot of money for the average person.”
Walker said when partnering with other companies, it helps to put into perspective the impact of their work. “We partnered with Invocare Europe, the largest for-profit wheelchair distributor, and they were amazed by us,” she said.
Over the years, FWM has received many awards and achieved important milestones. One of the most notable was in 2008 when Schoendorfer was awarded the Above & Beyond Citizen Award, the highest civilian award in the U.S. bestowed by the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
After all these years, Schoendorfer said he continues to have an active role with FWM because of his ability to see people find their purpose.
“It is important to keep my involvement because I have learned to express the need and the solution in persuasive means,” he said. “How could I justify not being involved?”
Solomon said all the work that they do at FWM relates to any person, at any time.
“Wheelchairs are a thing that is a person’s experience whether or not they realize it,” she says. “We will all probably at some point in our lives sit in a wheelchair. The concept of having literally to be on the ground is something that once you explain through things like video and these events, people can understand.”