For the 20 million adults and children in developing countries who are unable to walk, owning a traditional wheelchair – let alone a wheelchair accessible van – is often impossible or impractical. But one organization is dedicated to bringing them the gift of mobility, and with it, a sense of independence.
The mission of PET International is to “provide appropriate mobility for all of God’s children in need.” A PET, which stands for “personal energy transportation,” is a three-wheeled, durable mobility chair that is powered by a hand crank or pulled along by another person.
“We want to provide mobility in areas that a wheelchair simply would not work. The PETs are built for these rough areas that have a lot of dirt, gravel and mud… narrow tires don’t work well there,” explained Kathy Maynard, business administrator for PET MO-Columbia.
The PETs have wide tires with excellent tread and are made specifically for outdoor use. Some models have carts attached so the user can bring in wood and crops, or transport goods to sell to the community.
“This changes that old way of thinking, that if you have a lower status, you or your family must have done something wrong. [PETs] help those people be productive in society and raise their self-esteem,” Maynard said.
The Realization of a Need
The PET Project was born in 1995, when missionary Reverend Larry Hills and his friend Reverend Mel West noticed the lack of sturdy mobility devices for amputees and persons with disabilities in developing countries. Known as “the culture that crawls,” many had lost the use of their legs due to disease, landmines and accidents.
West contacted a designer who created the prototypes. By the late 1990s, missions around the world were requesting the chairs, and the operation expanded internationally with a production site in Mozambique.
“As Mel would say, it gets them off the ground, and brings them more eye-to-eye,” Maynard said. “It brings them level with other folks.”
The growth continued into the 2000s, and there are now 22 production shops in the U.S. and one in Africa. Today, more than 31,000 PETs have been distributed in 95 countries. PET MO-Columbia, the original shop, is essentially the hub of the operation. Parts and shipments are constantly coming and going through the site, and volunteers spend time making parts from padded seats to handles.
Major nonprofit organizations like Rotary International and the Lions Club support the PET Project with donations, grants and field distribution efforts in places ranging from Mexico, Sri Lanka and India.
The PETs are sent to their new homes almost completely assembled and with tools, spare parts and a chain repair kit. They are mostly distributed in bulk with the help of outlets around the world, including MedShare and the Global Aid Network.
In mid-September, the group’s supporters and members convened for its annual two-day conference and workshop in Texas. Around 60 representatives updated the attendees on the newest PET advances and building techniques. Several nonprofit affiliates also spoke on how their groups use PETs to advance their missions.
PET-MO Columbia is currently on track to hit its goal for this year, which is to distribute “2,012 PETs in 2012,” according to Maynard. That’s about 40 devices per week. The group hopes to increase production and distribution tenfold by 2015.
After 13 years of working for the PET Project, Maynard says it continues to be fulfilling because of the newfound sense of dignity the devices give their owners.
“It’s about helping your brother and sister in need around the world. Mobility is right up close to food, shelter and other basic needs. It gives them a chance to be a part of the community.”
It costs $250 to build a PET, plus shipping expenses. If you are interested in making a donation or volunteering, visit www.giftofmobility.org. You can also send monetary donations to:PET MO-Columbia 1908 Heriford Rd. Columbia, MO 65202