Give Mobility: Wheelchairs for Nicaraguan Children

by Special Families Saint Julie Billiart (Familias Especiales Santa Julia Billiart)
Give Mobility: Wheelchairs for Nicaraguan Children
Give Mobility: Wheelchairs for Nicaraguan Children
Give Mobility: Wheelchairs for Nicaraguan Children
Give Mobility: Wheelchairs for Nicaraguan Children
Give Mobility: Wheelchairs for Nicaraguan Children
Give Mobility: Wheelchairs for Nicaraguan Children
Give Mobility: Wheelchairs for Nicaraguan Children
Give Mobility: Wheelchairs for Nicaraguan Children
Give Mobility: Wheelchairs for Nicaraguan Children
Give Mobility: Wheelchairs for Nicaraguan Children
Give Mobility: Wheelchairs for Nicaraguan Children
Give Mobility: Wheelchairs for Nicaraguan Children

Mobility with dignity most of us don’t even think about our mobility. It is something taken for granted. When we started the wheelchair workshop, almost no one had access to wheelchairs and other mobility aids. Now with the restrictions, it seems to be getting back to that again. There have been different projects where groups tried to make access more available, like the man who made wheelchairs using plastic chairs. Then there were the wheelchairs made with plastic roping.
What these projects did not take into account is the posture of the person in the wheelchair.
The workshop staff is working on innovative strategies to use the existing resources of the wheelchair workshop to assist people with mobility and accessibility issues. They plan more visits to the neighborhoods to identify mobility, accessibility issues, and needs, coordinating with the social unit. They continue to work on the maintenance and repair of wheelchairs. This is a service that makes a big difference for people who already have a wheelchair.
We do not anticipate having any new wheelchairs enter the country this year. So we are working on other mobility aids like walkers and canes, finding ways to help people as they struggle to improve their mobility. We are experimenting with making canes for blind people. We have a model and hope to produce that type of cane and work with the blind association to distribute them.
Fitting wheelchairs to the person and their particular physical condition is essential. This has always been our aim, and this is what our young people received training to do. We continue to keep this priority even though we have less and less access to wheelchairs. Our staff has taken some time each week to try to improve their skills in adapting wheelchair parts. Recently we received some unexpected help from several schools in Matagalpa. They informed us that they are collecting throughout the city to find people who have wheelchairs or wheelchair parts in their homes that they no longer are using. Our staff of young people with disabilities is kept busy doing maintenance on wheelchairs. So this collection is very welcome and is a sign of the support that the wheelchair workshop has in the community. Many people are grateful for the work and generosity of the workshop. At the workshop, we are thankful for all of your support. Thank you for standing by us to keep working for mobility with dignity.

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   Mobility changes people's lives. In Matagalpa, Nicaragua, before 2000, it was odd for people to get a wheelchair. There just were not any available. But in 2000, we changed that with our wheelchair workshop when we began in a neighborhood known as "Calle Ocho," named for the gang members there. We opened up a lot more than just a wheelchair workshop. We opened up mobility for hundreds of young people through the distribution of wheelchairs, so people became mobile. We started talking and teaching about mobility with dignity and creating jobs.
   What does mobility with dignity mean now? What are the changes that happened because more people started having access to wheelchairs? Students started having the ability to get to school because they had mobility. Young people could get jobs because they were now mobile. The city of Matagalpa changed because it had to become more accessible for people with a wheelchair. Through our insistence, the city built more than 250 ramps throughout Matagalpa to create more mobility. Taxicab drivers had to start picking up people in wheelchairs. Buses had to become more accessible for people in wheelchairs. People became more independent in their households because they had a wheelchair. People began to participate in local meetings in their communities because they had wheelchairs. A dance group with people in wheelchairs formed. Artists could now paint because they had mobility with their wheelchairs. People started asking for more accessibility because they now had wheelchairs. Over the years, more than 50 young people learned wheelchair adaptation and maintenance. At first, we started giving jobs to gang members who learned this trade; this neighborhood's wheelchair workshop changed the neighborhood's character. Eventually, the street gang moved on.
   The gang members who learned about wheelchairs changed their lives and gained confidence that they could work jobs and be useful citizens. Familias Especiales invited community leaders to spend time in a wheelchair, to learn the reality of being seated in a wheelchair. People realized how inaccessible the streets are, especially when mayoral candidates took time in a wheelchair. 2021 is the 20th anniversary of our wheelchair workshop in Nicaragua. Partnering with Wisconsin Nicaragua Wheelchair Project and volunteer groups in Minnesota to make a difference and professionals from other countries, who from a distance help this small workshop to learn how to give people mobility with dignity during times of crisis.
We have been living through two significant disasters at once. The Nicaraguan political-economic and social crisis plus the pandemic have made it evident that wheelchairs are vital for independence and dignity.
   Ernesto, born deaf, works at the workshop learning ingenious ways to fix any wheelchair. By looking at a child, he can choose a wheelchair for their needs and adapt it correctly to meet those needs. He continues to make sure that each child or adult who comes into the workshop can leave the workshop more mobile than when they entered. Ernesto has worked with mobility volunteer professionals from all over the world to learn these skills. While working as a deaf person, he learned and realized that hearing people speak different languages. As a deaf person, it never occurred to him that all these hearing people were not speaking the same language. He couldn't understand the concept of different languages. It was a great day when he made this discovery while working with a deaf woman from the USA. Some hearing Spanish, Dutch and Japanese volunteers all were having a hard time understanding each other. It was like a lightbulb went on. He quickly wrote Spanish notes and tried to express his surprise in his sign language. Nicaraguan's have their very own sign dictionary. This diversity has always been a part of the workshop, people with different disABILITIES in the workshop. Once when we were going to have a class, the instructor said he would charge per person. Immediately workers said, well, then it will only be one charge. They said, "well, he is the eyes of this group, and she is the arms and hands; he is the legs, and this person is the ears."
   We have continued giving out wheelchairs and other mobility aids even though it has been four years since we have received a container with wheelchairs. We make wheelchairs from bits and pieces and returned wheelchairs when they no longer served people for different reasons. We have started to partner with a university to receive containers for us since we cannot accept them directly because of the government crisis. However, this has not been possible because of COVID. So we continue to create mobility with other aides such as walkers, crutches, and canes, reworking whatever wheelchairs come in our path.
   As long as people lack mobility, we will keep trying to find a way for them to become mobile. The wheelchair workshop in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, is working to find creative solutions. Your support in 2020 has been a tremendous gift to those in need of mobility aids. Together we keep working for mobility with dignity.

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Changing wheels on chairs
Changing wheels on chairs

What do I do if my child needs a wheelchair?  It used to be simple, just come to the wheelchair workshop to get fitted for a wheelchair adaptation. Yes, the child needs to come in to be measured and diagnosed by our therapist. We want to make sure the wheelchair is adapted and effectively serves the child. That is the process used to distribute responsibly over 2000 wheelchairs since the year 2000.

But now, we are desperately searching with others for wheelchairs.  Several organizations are connected in this work to find ways that we can import wheelchairs for those in need.  The problem is that we are not permitted to receive containers now.  . You see, there are no wheelchairs manufactured here in Nicaragua, and we need to adapt used-wheelchairs.   All wheelchairs are imported from other countries.  But the problem is even larger.  The wheelchairs that we need are specialized wheelchairs. We need wheelchairs for paralyzed children, wheelchairs that recline, wheelchairs with neck, shoulder, and head support, wheelchairs with extra leg and feet support.

Three years into this crisis, we have not given up.  We still get the occasional wheelchair returned, which we then adapt for another person but we have not received new wheelchairs (new even if they are used)  When people received a wheelchair in the past, they signed a promise to return them when they no longer need them. We still have wheelchair parts that keep our staff busy maintaining wheelchairs.  People come in for regular checkups on their wheelchairs, but if they have out-grown their wheelchair, we do not have a replacement.  Our hope has taken a hard turn with COVID for getting a container across the borders with specialized wheelchairs. So we continue searching for a solution in a double crisis. 

We are making bath chairs, we are working on other mobility and therapy aids, and we keep in contact with the people who need wheelchairs.  We have turned our skills to accessibility; by installing handrails or working with engineers to make the bathrooms more accessible with ramps that are with the correct inclination.  We are working on our disability-accessible park. We have contacts all over the world, but if the borders are closed; and containers are not permitted, it does not make any difference.  The need for mobility remains for children in Nicaragua, and we are meeting it as best we can.  We have a team of young men who never tire, continuing to work on getting mobility to others, even if it is not with a specialized wheelchair, for the moment. The only wheelchairs that are entering the country are standard wheelchairs for adults, and their distribution is controlled.

As long as people lack mobility, we will keep trying to find a way for them to become mobile. The wheelchair workshop in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, is working during this pandemic to find creative solutions. Your support in 2020 has been a tremendous gift to those in need of mobility aids,  together we are going to make those mobility dreams come true. 

adapting wheelchairs
adapting wheelchairs
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Children are waiting for wheelchairs in Nicaragua
Children are waiting for wheelchairs in Nicaragua

How do you deal with several major crisis at the same time?  For instance, the corona virus and the social political and economic crisis in Nicaragua.  If you ask one young man who has received a wheel chair from Special Families he says “well you just have to wheel around them”.  You have to keep a good face on a bad day.  The wheel chair workshop has been wheeling, reeling from the Nica crisis as it has become almost impossible to get mobility aides into the country and Nicaragua does not manufacture wheel chairs or other major mobility aides.  The fact is that what we need are specialty CP wheel chairs and wheel chairs made for children and we are working on several avenues to try to get the wheel chairs to come into the country but stop, the corona virus has almost stopped everything and did stop our work in this endeavor, but not our spirts.

 As of March 25 we decided to go on lock down to protect our health and those around us a very hard decision but necessary for an organization who works with people who are vulnerable and at the greatest risk of contracting this virus.   
The decision was made by the foundation to close as Nicaragua started having cases of Covid19.  We could not envision doing anything else. This was not mandated by the government, schools have stayed open, nothing has been shut by government health concerns. At this time in early July the government of Nicaragua has mostly ignored the pandemic and have not order any social distancing or self-protection for their citizens.But is planning many massive rallys and activities to celebrate the month of July. The country leads in the percentage of deaths : cases ratio in Central America.  This is a sad reality that we have to live with and come through alive. Our projected return is now scheduled for middle of august., with hopes that we can feel secure to bring all workers back without infecting one another.  Since there is no testing in our country we don’t want to just start up again.  It is very hard without any support or acceptance by the government and more support for the spread of the virus.  Everything is an unknown for us but we continue to follow social media from central american countries and the World Health organization.  That is all we have. 

 We also set up WhatsApp groups to keep in touch with workers and those families who have access to social media. But the wheel chair workshop is essential.  The other day a man came knocking at my house door urgently stating that he had a wheel chair to return. When I opened the door it was a man who had received a wheel chair to help his mother.  He lives in a rural community outside of Matagalpa and he said his mother had just died and he wanted to make sure and get the wheel chair back to us in case anyone needed it.  This is the orientation that we give to people who receive wheel chairs that if they no longer need them they could return them to us so we can help others.  He was very proud that he had received the wheel chair which helped his mother but now maybe someone else could use it.  I received the wheel chair with many thanks and he and his other masked companion drove into the sunset happy that their mother’s memory would bring mobility to others.  At that very moment the phone rang and someone said “I know you are closed but my brother needs a wheel chair badly can you help me. Please!”  Usually we have people come in and get fitted and make sure that the need was legitimate.  At first I was going to say I am sorry but we have no wheel chairs, which is the truth, but there was the returned wheel chair staring at me saying “here I am.”  So this family came the next day to pick up the chair and promised that when they didn’t need it they would return it for someone else. Another masked stranger left with the wheel chair and the hope that it offers at this time.  I felt like I had just lived through a miracle.   But wait I started getting calls from people suffering from the virus and needing walkers and canes.  Yes, I could do that from my home because we have several stored there since we are doing remodeling at the workshop just before we closed.  So even though we are closed we are still working from home.  I got another call for a hospital bed.  And the head of the workshop said he could come in and ready the bed for someone to pick up.  Another corona virus case.  However, this one did not end so well.  When it was time to pick up the bed the family called and canceled, their father had just died and they didn’t want us to go through all the trouble so they called from hospital at 6 am after seeing the morgue filled with bodies, they were concerned for us. It is a grim reminder to us why we are shut down for the moment.   

 

We had just told our workers “you are being paid to stay at home and take care of your health and protect yourself and others.” three months into the lock down we have several of our workers who have gotten the virus and are struggling to recuperate because it is not recognized here and there is no special treatment developed or put into practice.  We also recognized that people were not getting the right nutrition and most social programs were shut down many permanently so we have taken it on ourselves to begin to provide monthly food packages. Staff were very active in getting out each month more than 200 packages of basic grains to people we work with in the neighborhoods of Matagalpa, including the workers.  

We used the delivery of these food packages to educate as we went in trucks with our workers in protective gear not getting out of the trucks but letting each individual enter into the double cabin and receive a small talk about the virus and being able to talk a bit about their experience so far.  We are trying to motivate people to stay in their homes to avoid the virus. This is not our usual style of direct work with the families but because public transportation is so crowded and the food shortage is so great we decided to do it in this manner to help our families when they are getting no other help.  We posted a you tube link of an inspirational video that we did about corona virus for our organization, on our you tube channel. We are a program to  provide mobility not a program to lay people off while spreading the disease unknowingly

Families Especial  is continuing to give out medical and mobile aids that we do have on hand to be of service to the public during this pandemic.  The ministry of health just called and we gave them a half dozen walkers without any questions asked, because we know that the need is great right now and our workers who are most vulnerable have the gift to be protected by lock down in our foundation and so we must also find a way to gift people with a little bit of hope and assistance.  We are grateful that we do have a lot of walkers and canes and even an oxygen tank which can be of service.  We want to thank everyone for their support of our wheel chair workshop and to say directly we are not going away. We would prefer to be working actively to involve people with a handicap and helping people become mobile.  We have deemed helping through the wheel chair workshop to be an essential service and will find another way to wheel around these obstacles.    

We are aware that all over the world countries are at different stages in this virus, this dangerous unknown threat and we continue to keep everyone in the world in our prayers. A small prayer from children:  Dear God be good to me the sea is so wide and my boat is so small. Let’s all share our boats and our mobility aids to be safe, together.

Joy of having a wheel chair
Joy of having a wheel chair

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Therapist from the brigad working with child
Therapist from the brigad working with child

When you can’t get wheel chairs make bath chairs.  These past two weeks Familias Especiales had visitors from the US volunteers who help us collect wheel chair and mobility aids in the USA.  They worked in different areas of Familias Especiales but focused their work on the wheel chair project.    They specifically were training our workers to build bath chairs and Standers (an aid for children with weak legs and posture problems.)

It was a very productive two weeks, because we also visited with a University Rector in the Capitol, and are about to sign an alliance with them to be able to get some wheel chairs through a container.  The alliance is a way to work with the university to do social work projects and to bring about an awareness of the students at the university of people with a disAbility.  There are many different works that we could do in the future.  So this alliance could be very important to our organization but especially to the wheel chair workshop.  There are many different ways that young people can learn about the needs and abilities of a person with a disAbility but what better way than working directly with people with a disAbility on our staff to build mobility aides for others.  The bath chairs and standers are going to be distributed in the neighborhoods of Matagalpa to aid parents with children with a disAbility to give therapy to their children at home. This is always a priority of Familias Especiales, the involvement of parents in their children’s lives.  At the same time the brigade helped staff to collect unused equipment that families may have had laying around in their homes that their children outgrew.  This can be refurbished and used by other children.  This is the purpose of our wheel chair workshop to refurbish and help maintain wheel chairs and other mobility aides.  It is not an easy task to get people to let go of old equipment but it is a noble cause and most in the end realize that others also need these opportunities for independence.  The problem for Nicaraguans is that there are no factories in Nicaragua that manufacture wheel chairs.  All wheel chair whether standard or specialized are imported.  There are different projects which groups have had to bring in wheel chairs but they are always standard wheel chairs.  What we need are specialized wheel chairs for children with different needs.  We need small wheel chairs, we need wheel chairs with more support for the movement of the head, we need wheel chairs with more support for legs and feet, we need reclining wheel chairs etc. etc.. There are times when a standard adult chair can be adjusted to serve the needs of our young people and we also help any adult or senior citizen who also needs mobility aids but our focus is the children who have no other form of mobility.  Our volunteers in minnesota and Wisconsin are able to get specialized equipment donated but it is getting it into Nicaragua in the middle of the crisis we are living that is the hard part.

We are grateful for all the support for this program especially in this time of crisis in Nicaragua when no one in the country has been receiving new wheel chairs. It is all about recycling and knowing that we all have mobility needs. So thank you as we continue to repeat that our children really need wheel chairs to be able to become more independent and to lift up their self-esteem.  A wheel chair in the family helps everyone involved. So please continue to support this noble cause of mobility with dignity in Matagalpa Nicaragua, because we are all temporarily with mobility it is a gift so thanks for giving it to others.

Stander with child's shoes ready to go
Stander with child's shoes ready to go
bath chairs made by Aldo  one of the assitants
bath chairs made by Aldo one of the assitants
artists who uses one of the chairs recovered
artists who uses one of the chairs recovered
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Project Leader:
rebecca trujillo
Matagalpa, Nicaragua
$22,710 raised of $30,000 goal
 
224 donations
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