About 1,400 people will receive wheelchairs this year thanks to the combined efforts of several local Rotary clubs, including Forsyth County's five chapters.
Local Rotary club members, together with Rotary International and the Wheelchair Foundation, raised an estimated $400,000 to buy wheelchairs for people living in the Caribbean.
The Wheelchair Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in California, was started in 2000 and delivers wheelchairs to people worldwide who are unable to afford one themselves.
Bobby Thomas, owner of Thomas Lumber Co. and a member of the Rotary Club of Forsyth County, decided to organize a local effort after hearing about it from Rotary International.
Rotary International, Thomas said, joined with the Wheelchair Foundation soon after the foundation's inception.
"A lot of countries around the world need an organization that they can depend on to get the wheelchairs out to the needy people," Thomas said. "That's how they (Wheelchair Foundation) partnered with Rotary International."
This year, Thomas said, marks the fifth year that the Rotary Club of Forsyth County has organized a drive to aid the Wheelchair Foundation.
While all wheelchairs bought with this year's funds will go to the Caribbean, the club has sent them in the past to Belize, the Bahamas, Bosnia and Trinidad and Tobago.
Prior to this year, Thomas said Rotary had sent an average of one container, which is about 280 wheelchairs, to the sponsored country.
This year, however, the club will send more than five containers, thanks to a matching grant from Rotary International.
Jon Grant, a Rotary coordinator with the Wheelchair Foundation in California, helped make the grant possible.
"The idea was brought by Forsyth County," Grant said. "They wanted to go somewhere in the Caribbean, and that was the seed for the idea."
Under Rotary International's regulations, however, two clubs must collaborate in order to receive a matching grant, he said.
So, Grant helped Thomas collaborate with a Rotarian he knew in Trinidad and after both clubs agreed to cooperate, Rotary International awarded them the matching grant.
Under the grant, Rotary International pledged to meet whatever the clubs involved raised, and the Wheelchair Foundation agreed to meet whatever Rotary collected.
Thomas estimated the five Rotary clubs in Forsyth County raised $65,000, which increased to $100,000 after other area clubs, including ones in Jasper, Madison County, Gainesville and North Carolina, as well as Trinidad and California, pitched in.
Rotary International met that amount, making the total $200,000. The Wheelchair Foundation then matched this figure, bringing the final amount to $400,000.
Tommy Bagwell, chief executive officer of American Proteins in Forsyth County, was a key local contributor to the project.
"Bobby Thomas is a personal friend of mine," Bagwell said. "He has poured a lot of his time into this wheelchair project over the years.
"I had actually been on one of the trips, out of the country, where we handed the wheelchairs out, one by one. It certainly moved me."
Bagwell said he was "impacted by how much poverty exists in some countries where the wheelchairs are distributed."
"I wanted to see the project succeed at a higher level, so I offered to match the year-over-year increases of the combined Rotary Clubs in Forsyth County for the Wheelchair project," he said. "That match turned out to be between $15,000 to $20,000."
The cost for one wheelchair is $150, according to Thomas.
"We contribute $75, which the Wheelchair Foundation matches to pay for the wheelchair and transportation," he said.
The 1,400 wheelchairs will be sent to areas in the Caribbean sometime this fall, Thomas said.
He said part of the grant money will be used for the initial delivery, and the remaining funds will be spent on an additional containers that will also go to the Caribbean.
"There will actually be a total of 10 containers eventually," Thomas said. "The five containers going to the Caribbean are the first part of the grant."
Both Thomas and Grant have witnessed firsthand the impact that their efforts have made, as both helped hand out wheelchairs in Belize in 2003.
"The Rotarians, when they travel out of the U.S., get a hands-on experience to pick someone up off the ground and change someone's life," Grant said.
Thomas recalled one memorable moment, seeing "the smile on the kids' faces" when they received a wheelchair.
One child had suffered a seizure and "was limp," Thomas said.
She had trouble even sitting up in her wheelchair. But her family can now move her from place to place with ease.
"Most of these people can't get around, they're homebound or confined to the bed," Thomas said. "This wheelchair makes all the difference in the world."
Tim Perry, with Citizens Bank of Forsyth County and a Rotary Club of Forsyth County member, also went to Belize.
"That was one of the most rewarding experiences I've ever had," Perry said. "There's nothing like having an 8-year-old boy hug your neck because you brought him a wheelchair, and he doesn't have any legs."
Perry said that before the boy received the chair, he moved around using his hands and arms.
"How do you put a price on giving one the gift of mobility, particularly one that never has been able to walk?" he said. "You can't."
Thomas said he will continue to aid the Wheelchair Foundation in the future, and urged others to do the same.
"This is not restricted to Rotarians," he said. "Anyone can donate."
According to the Wheelchair Foundation's Web site, a donation of $75 will fund the purchase of one wheelchair.