David Shirkey matches the poor and disabled with a free wheelchair or prosthetic limb
A visit to Poland gave David Shirkey an idea to become a one-man charity, giving the poor and disabled a wheelchair or prosthetic limb.
David Shirkey doesn't fit the stereotype of a philanthropist. He's "no saint," he says. He doesn't have deep pockets or belong to a group that does charitable work.Skip to next paragraph
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Most days, you'll find him dressed in a white apron, perhaps carving 200 kissing birds out of kiwi fruit for a wedding reception at the Essex Conference Center & Retreat, in Essex, Mass., where he's the chef.
But once a year, he also puts smiles on the faces of disabled children in Poland.
Since 2005, Mr. Shirkey has been quietly shipping wheelchairs, crutches, and toys to five or six Polish kids a year.
Beata Kelson is Polish, and in 2004 she was earning $140 a week as an au pair in Massachusetts. Her mother in Poland needed a new wooden leg. It was going to cost 6,000 zloty (about $2,000).
"At first, I thought she was pulling my leg," Shirkey says. "'Does anybody still use wooden legs?' I thought."
Then he blurted out, "Maybe I can help."
It took months of looking on eBay and making phone calls before Shirkey persuaded a group, the Limbs for Life Foundation in Oklahoma City, to donate an artificial leg that might fit this 50-something woman in Poland.
Shirkey was already planning to fly to Poland, so he decided to deliver the leg in person. It was a 13-hour train ride to the village of Objazda. Shirkey isn't Polish, doesn't speak the language, and Berta couldn't go. So he traveled with a Polish friend, whom he had met in the kitchen of a US summer camp a few years earlier.
It was nearly Christmas, so Shirkey wrapped the prosthetic up as a present.
"Her hands were shaking as she opened it. Then she just stared at the aluminum shaft like it was a bad joke. It wasn't wooden. It wasn't sturdy-looking.
"It didn't even look like a leg," recalls Shirkey. "Once we showed her how it worked, however, she started crying. 'I'm too old for this! Why would you do this for me? How was this possible?' "
"Anything is possible in America if you work at it," Shirkey told her.
It took another two years – and visits to three doctors – to finally get the leg properly fitted. But Ms. Kelson says her mother now says that she has had three lives: her life before the car accident; life with a 50-pound wooden leg (for 30 years she seldom left the house); and life with her new high-tech prosthetic.