Hector Manley: paddling for a purpose

A young double amputee paddles down the 2,500 miles of the Mississippi River to bring wheelchairs to his native El Salvador.

Eric Miller/Reuters/File
The Mississippi River flows past St. Paul, Minn. Hector Manley, who at age 11 lost both legs when an earthquake struck his native El Salvador, canoed the entire 2,500 miles of the Mississippi to raise money to bring wheelchairs to his homeland.

Pondering the options for a summer challenge, Hector Manley considered biking or walking across the United States.

“Then,” he says, “I read about people kayaking the Mississippi River.”

“We asked Hector whether he knew how far that would be,” says Don Manley, his adoptive father and a member of the Rotary Club of Bonita Springs, Fla., recalling their initial conversation in 2010. “He said 2,500 miles, and only about 15 people a year do it. ‘Damn,’ I thought – he had done his homework.”

A test of will was hardly necessary for Hector, who at age 11 lost both legs when a 7.7-magnitude earthquake struck his native El Salvador in January 2001.

“We would spend our time playing in this garbage dump, looking for toys and clothes,” Hector says. The earthquake caused a landslide, and he fell into a ravine filled with smoldering refuse. When it was over, he was buried waist deep in rubbish. One of his legs had been crushed, and third-degree burns covered more than 70 percent of his body.

“The earthquake was on a Saturday, and the amputations the following Monday,” he says.

At the time, Don, then a member of the Rotary Club of Findlay, Ohio, and his wife, Karen, were visiting El Salvador on a Rotary project. They saw Hector lying in bed at Benjamin Bloom National Children’s Hospital in San Salvador.

“My wife and I looked at each other and said, ‘We can do this.’ We didn’t know what ‘this’ was, but we had to do it,” Don says. “We never had any intention of adopting him, but having been in El Salvador doing projects and knowing the infrastructure, we knew he had little opportunity there.”

The couple, with two older daughters of their own, arranged to bring Hector to Ohio, where he was fitted with prosthetic legs. When they returned to El Salvador, Don says, “we realized it was not the place for him.” They broached the idea of adoption to Hector’s birth parents and sought the advice of Salvadoran Rotarians. “To a man, they said, take him to the United States.”

Hector has thrived here, serving as captain of his high school golf team and graduating from the University of Tampa with degrees in advertising and public relations. He works for a major American retailer near Tampa in logistics – a skill that proved handy as he prepared for his summer 2012 adventure kayaking the full length of the Mississippi, from Minnesota to Louisiana.

Hector’s best friend, Michael Webber, and Don each paddled with him for part of the route, while Karen followed in a supply boat from Minneapolis to New Orleans. “That summer was the driest summer, the biggest drought in 50 years,” Hector says. “During the hottest times in July and August, the river would be barely moving, and we would have to work a lot harder to paddle. The farther south we got, the slower the river went.” Hot winds whipped across sandbars, conjuring sandstorms, “just like you see in the desert.”

Despite days of temperatures exceeding 100 degrees, Hector – the first double amputee to kayak the length of the river – went the distance in 93 days, beating his goal of 100 days. He collected $43,000 in pledges, half of which went to the Rotarian-founded Wheelchair Foundation, which matched his donation, and the remainder to the Wounded Warrior Project.

Scores of Rotarians, Wheelchair Foundation officials, members of Hector’s adoptive and biological families, and friends participated in the subsequent distribution of 270 wheelchairs in El Salvador in 2013.

“Hector has natural leadership ability,” says David Behring, president of the Wheelchair Foundation and a member of the Rotary Club of Danville/Sycamore Valley, Calif. Adds Jack Drury, of the Rotary Club of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who serves as president of the foundation’s Southeast region, “He’s a fabulous young man who wants to help as many people as he can.”

Since obtaining his U.S. citizenship in 2006, Hector has made frequent visits to El Salvador to visit his mother and father, Anabel and Arnoldo Castro, his siblings, and his extended family, but the wheelchair distribution served as a family reunion he’ll never forget, he says.

“I can’t imagine the Mississippi trip, the fundraising and the whole thing, turning out any better,” he adds. “Having both families together was great.”

As they distributed the wheelchairs, Hector says, he thought about the hard days on the Mississippi.

“The best part was the smiles on people’s faces. A wheelchair means so much: It means mobility, it means they’ll be able to do things. The kids have a lot of energy, and as soon as you set them in the chair, they’re off and racing. They feel like they can go everywhere. That’s what we want – their ability to go places.”

“The kayaking trip,” Don says, “was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I only did half of it. But Hector, he skydives, scuba dives. For a guy with no legs, he’s the crazy one.”

But Hector plays down that daredevil image, saying, “I’m someone who can show that anything and everything is possible.”

This article originally appeared in The Rotarian, the official magazine of Rotary International. Rotary connects 1.2 million members of more than 34,000 Rotary clubs to provide humanitarian service and build goodwill throughout the world through addressing issues such as disease prevention, maternal and child health, literacy, peace and conflict resolution, economic development, and clean water. The Rotarian challenges readers to become more involved in service to their neighborhoods and to the global community. It's found on Twitter at @therotarian and @Rotary.

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