By Glynnis Grainger
WHEELCHAIRS for Kids workshop manager and Christian Brother Olly Pickett and his team launched this month a new three-wheeled wheelchair for rough terrain for disabled and destitute kids overseas.
Ironically, he is now confined to a wheelchair and has used crutches for four years after an operation for a replacement ankle hasn’t lasted.
It is a project of the Rotary Club of Scarborough, supported by the Christian Brothers.
Volunteer workers have been building the older models of wheelchairs for 12 years to give hope and mobility to children in third world countries, where they are sent in container-loads. Since the workshop in Wangara opened in August 1998, a total of 18,100 wheelchairs have been manufactured from scratch there by men and women volunteers.
Br Olly told The Record that retired people come in at 8am and finish at noon daily, assembling and packing wheelchairs at the rate of 200 a month, costing $20,000 at $100 each for the older models.
Production has got up to 400 a month and they rely on donations to keep going.
He said: “The new model had to be adjusted and is complicated – the seat stays the same but the back moves. All the parts on it move to suit the kid.
“Seven different settings for the axle mean that a kid affected by a landmine has a different centre of gravity than a kid affected by cerebral palsy. There is a three-degree camber on the rear wheels – it gets over the rough roads easily.”
The new model, which has come a long way since the original prototype of 1998, costs $160 – up about $60.
Br Olly said: “We have distributors and don’t have to pay for freight and Customs which are paid for by humanitarian agencies in Australia. We have to find trained people in the country to fit the child to the wheelchair from now on. Before this, it was fitting the chair to the kid. We had to re-jig the old workshop – it has taken us about a good month to build the new wheelchairs.” He has a book of Guidelines from the World Health Organisation, USAid and AusAid, for the design, with sketches and measurements “for manual wheelchairs in less-resourced settings.”
The State Government pays the rent, since Br Olly wrote to Geoff Gallop when he was Premier, five years ago, and overheads are paid for by the Rotary Club of Scarborough. “That is, over 18,000 kids have a better life – it gives them dignity and a chance to go to school. The mothers can’t carry them any more,” Br Olly said.
“It is the only project of its kind in Australia with more than 100 volunteers, with 25 on the waiting list.
“More than 220 schools – from primary schools through to big colleges – support us by collecting aluminium cans, and we recycle and sell the ring-pulls, raising $260,000. Every religion is involved and some schools in NSW and Queensland as well.
Last week, 260 of the older model wheelchairs went by container-load to Sri Lanka.
Br Olly said the Christian Brothers support him by supplying a ute and paying for its maintenance. “I count my lucky stars I can still drive a car,” he said. The ute has automatic transmission.
Originally a metalworking teacher, he has won many awards, including WA Citizen of the Year for Community Service, the John Curtin Medal and the AM, Australian Medal in the Order of Australia.
“We have hundreds of ladies in Church groups, craft groups and retirement villages making knitted and crocheted rugs about one metre square,” he said.
Each wheelchair goes with a rug and soft toy, such as a teddy bear, for each child. Since 2004, plastic polyurethane tyres in one unit have been used, rather than the puncture-proof tyres with solid rubber liner in the older models of wheelchairs. The wheelchairs go to 60 countries with Vietnam being the biggest one.
He said Gordon Hudson from the Rotary Club of Scarborough is the volunteer CEO “since day one” and friend Bob Sheridan does all the clerical work, emails, computer work and helps in the workshop, also since the start.
Busloads of visitors and school groups visit often and Br Olly scoots around in his wheelchair attending to them and his duties in the workshop.
“We try to keep the workshop tidy,” he says. In fact, it is a paragon of tidiness.
A specially-built machine from the University of WA has been testing a load for resilience on the latest wheelchair model 200,000 times.
For donations please contact Wheelchairs for Kids Inc at Units 1,2 & 5, 45 Dellamarta Rd, Wangara, WA 6065, or PO Box 1175, Wangara DC WA 6947. Tel/Fax: (08) 9409 3633 or 0411 633 020. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or go to www.wheelchairsforkids.org