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.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
David Shirkey poses in Salem, Mass., with some of the items he hopes to ship to Poland. His modest philanthropic work – he spends a lot of his own money – began with his impulsive offer to help an ex-girlfriend’s mother.

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.

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.

But his one-man, do-it-yourself charity didn't start by helping children, Shirkey says with a Boston accent. It all began with a conversation with an ex-girlfriend at a Dunkin' Donuts.

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.

"He's a cook. He's not a wealthy guy," Kelson says. "But David has a big, big heart."

His charitable efforts might have ended there. But a few months later, Shirkey was on Gadu-Gadu, an online Polish chat site. He mentioned the artificial leg delivery, and Magda Idzik, a special-education teacher in Katowice, Poland, asked him if he could find wheelchairs for children at a Roman Catholic orphanage near her.

How could he refuse? Shirkey found that wheelchairs on eBay sold for about $140 each. But he wasn't sure he could afford to buy the chairs as well as pay for the shipping to Poland. He asked at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston about second-hand wheelchairs.

"A doctor gave me a business card and said the guy on the back of the card handled equipment for the hospital," he says. "I flipped it over and just smiled. His name was Polish."

One by one, Shirkey picked up five used wheelchairs. But that first shipment hit a snag: American shipping companies wanted $2,000 to ship the chairs to Poland. Then Kelson suggested he call a Polish shipping company in the Boston area. The firm agreed to do it for $200, a price Shirkey could afford.

In the past six years, Ms. Idzik estimates that Shirkey has helped 40 Poles. Such assistance, she notes, is as much about freedom as comfort.

"He's given people a chance to go out and meet other people, beyond family and nurses," she says. "And he's restored to these children a sense of faith in the goodness of others."

This year, Shirkey suffered a setback. Seven used chairs were promised, but only one donation came through. "It was a tough economy, I guess," he says.

He's been told many times that if he'd just set up a legal nonprofit entity, more companies and individuals would help. That's his next step, he says.

Shirkey goes to Poland once or twice a year – he's there now – to hang out with his Polish friends and do "what single guys do on vacation." While he's there, Shirkey will get together with Idzik, who will take him to a state-run rehab center or one of the orphanages near Katowice.

The gregarious American will visit with the children and chat with their caregivers. Then he'll return to the United States with a small list of things he can do to make a difference in a few more lives.

"I can't help everyone. The world's too big," he says with a shrug. "But I've learned I can help someone."

• David Shirkey may be contacted at dashirkey@yahoo.com

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