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Difference Maker

Mel West promotes a vehicle that gives dignity and mobility to disabled people

The rugged, hand-powered wheelchairs, made by volunteers, are distributed in more than 100 countries.

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    Mel West (r.) greets Nigerian Seun Oke with Larry Hills (l.), the missionary who had the idea for rugged mobility vehicles.
    Scott Schaefer/Courtesy of PET/File
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In Vietnam, Le Thi Thanh contracted polio at the age of 2, lost the use of her legs, and spent the next 20 years having to crawl to get around.

In Uzbekistan, Hobibullo Zohidov managed to get around on a crude board with wheels for nearly 22 years after losing his legs in a land mine explosion when he was a conscript in the Soviet Army in Afghanistan.

Elgar Salguero was 17 and a breadwinner for his family in Mexico when he lost both legs in a traffic accident. 

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Even in a developed country such as the United States, life for mobility impaired people constitutes a daily challenge. For those in the developing world, losing the use of one’s limbs – especially both legs – can be a much greater challenge. Around the globe millions of people are literally living in the dirt without a reliable and dignified way to transport themselves. 

Receiving the “gift of mobility” in the form of a PET (Personal Energy Transportation) – the sturdy three-wheeled, hand-pedaled wheelchair conceived of by a group of volunteers under the direction of the Rev. Mel West – has radically changed the lives of Ms. Thanh, Mr. Zohidov, Mr. Salguero, and tens of thousands of others around the world.

Mr. West has had a hand in founding or serving several notable faith-based nongovernmental organizations in a long career as a pastor and antipoverty activist, including several years on the international boards of Heifer International and Habitat for Humanity.

Soon after West’s stint on the Habitat board ended in 1994, Larry Hills, a Methodist missionary in what was then Zaire, told West about the polio and land mine survivors he was trying to serve. He issued a challenge. “We need hand-cranked, sturdily built, three-wheeled wheelchairs with hauling capacity that will stand up to the rough trails and roads of Zaire,” West remembers him saying.

West took this challenge to a friend and co-worker, Earl Miner, an engineer whose heart was in designing simple products to improve the lives of those in the developing world. Within a few months, Mr. Miner had produced four prototypes, which were sent to Mr. Hills to test by taking them to the worst places he could find and seeing if they worked. “He did, and they did,” says West. The success of these first four machines led to the founding of the PET Project in Columbia, Mo.

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From its humble origins in West’s garage, the PET assembly facility and warehouse has grown to occupy a 9,000-square-foot building in a neighborhood of auto garages, lumber yards, and concrete plants on the north side of the city. PET shares the building with two sister projects also founded by West. The Container Project collects, sorts, and boxes donated clothing, shoes, bedding, and medical supplies to fill shipping containers that are distributed around the world by The Rainbow Network and other NGOs. A second project rehabilitates donated sewing machines for shipment overseas. 

There are now three versions of the PET vehicle: the original handcycle for adults, a child-size handcycle, and a pull-behind PET for transporting people unable to operate a hand crank.

PET is staffed entirely by volunteers save for Gary Moreau, who has been the half-time project director since West “retired” four years ago. (West still comes in a few days a week as director emeritus.) The secret to PET’s success, West says, are all those volunteers, whose favorite kind of “payday” comes when he shuts down assembly work for a moment to read aloud the latest story about a PET recipient. 

Roger Hofmeister has been involved with PET since retiring as a family physician and teacher more than 15 years ago. Through his work with the Indian Health Service and the Peace Corps, Dr. Hofmeister understands why being part of PET is such a powerful experience. 

“In the world of relief work,” he says, “I don’t know of any other project that has such an immediate and profound impact on the recipients.”

The Columbia facility is the largest of 23 PET assembly workshops around the US. Additionally, certain components are produced by volunteers in shops, garages, and barns around the country and shipped to the assembly points. Several local and national corporations provide materials or transportation assistance, all of which help keep the cost of a PET below $300, a cost covered entirely by donations.  

Collectively, the PET workshops have produced more than 50,000 PETs, which have transformed the lives of people in more than 100 countries.

“I have such admiration for these people who have faced difficulties that would knock me flat,” West says. “Many have been literally crawling in the dirt as beggars, and then they get a PET and are truly mobile for the first time. They can look people in the eye.” 

Recognizing the basic dignity and resourcefulness in every person has been central to West’s worldview since he was a child growing up on a small farm near Golden City, Mo., during the Great Depression. 

He credits his parents with modeling a life in which service to others could bring more gratification than any material acquisition. As a Methodist minister he devoted his career to taking seriously the Wesleyan admonition to live “by doing good, by being in every kind merciful..., doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all men.”

As a pastor of his own churches, a director of the Office of Creative Ministries for the Methodist Church in Missouri, and a lay organizer, West has helped midwife an astonishing number of faith-based ministries, projects, and NGOs over the past 60 years.

Keith Jaspers, founder and executive director of The Rainbow Network, has known West for more than 30 years and counts him among the biggest influences on his own development work in Nicaragua. 

“Mel has two qualities that set him apart,” Mr. Jaspers says. “Perception and perseverance. He understands people’s needs and never gives up on trying to meet them.”

Hofmeister is unequivocal in his esteem for West’s long career.

“I never met Mother Teresa, but I think I met the next best thing,” he says. “Mel has a unique vantage point of looking at the world and seeing the need, but also immediately thinking of a way that he can help with that need.”  

Hofmeister is now leading an effort to ensure that PETs meet the needs of recipients for as long as possible. It is difficult to assess the performance of PETs in some of the remote corners of the world where they are distributed. Hofmeister wants to collect as much data as possible about the durability of PETs and the challenges of repairing them.

Keeping as many existing PETs as possible functioning is crucial, because the need for PETs and devices like them is enormous. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 21 million people in the developing world don’t have the use of one or both of their legs. Those who have received the gift of mobility through a PET are living testaments to the liberation a PET offers.

West has scores of stories about PET recipients, whom he always credits as the real heroes of the PET story. One of his favorites is about Ernesto, a middle-aged man in Cobán, Guatemala, who had spent much of his life crawling the streets as a beggar after contracting polio at age 7. 

Upon receiving a PET a few years ago, Ernesto was not content with mobility alone. He transformed the cargo space of his PET into a mini-mart on wheels, and now supports himself through this entrepreneurial effort.

His story is the best kind of “payday” West could ever hope for.

• Learn more at www.petinternational.org.

How to take action

Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to groups that help those in need:

The Human Capital Foundation – Selamta Family Project creates small families for orphans and women who confront AIDS or poverty. Take action: Donate to the Selamta project.

The John Dau Foundation fulfills the dream of genocide survivor John Dau by providing health care in South Sudan through clinics and community health workers. Take action: Donate to help buy an ambulance.

• World Food Program USA supports the United Nations World Food Program, the world’s largest hunger relief organization. Take action: Provide a month’s supply of food to a person in need.

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