September 25, 2000
Wheelchairs for the World Foundation seeks to bring mobility to those in need
by Deborah Stone
The ability to move from one place to another is a basic human right. For most people, this right is a given and almost always taken for granted.
For others, mobility is difficult. They need wheelchairs to move themselves where they want to go because they have suffered an illness or injury or simply are of an advanced age, requiring assistance with this most basic of rights.
Unfortunately, approximately 20 million people around the world are deprived of mobility because the wheelchairs they require aren't available to them.
Wheelchairs for the World Foundation, recently established with a grant by the Kenneth E. Behring Foundation, is a nonprofit organization leading an international effort to deliver a wheelchair to every man, woman and child in the world who needs one.
The Foundation plans to offer mobility and independence by providing over 100,000 wheelchairs a year to those in need, with a goal of one million wheelchairs over the next five years. Already, 30,000 wheelchairs have been delivered to people in Romania, Vietnam, the Crow Indian Nation in Montana, Guatemala and Botswana.
The organization has allied itself with numerous international relief agencies to identify those in need. Woodinville resident Sheri Johnson became involved with Wheelchairs for the World Foundation when she began working as a flight attendant for businessman Ken Behring on his private jet.
The previous longtime owner of The Country Goose in Woodinville, Johnson sold her business and embarked on a whole different career. She says, "When I first started working for Ken two years ago as a flight attendant, I would travel to all these countries with him and I got to see so many things, especially how people lived in various places around the world.
"When Ken decided to start the Foundation, it was hard not to get involved. I couldn't help but be affected by what I saw. It's amazing to see the changes in people when they get their own wheelchairs. The change is instantaneous. They have smiles on their faces because they now feel independent and have a real sense of pride because they have their mobility."
Johnson volunteers as a field coordinator for the Foundation, helping to organize the people in the field and facilitate the deliveries of the wheelchairs. She travels overseas monthly with Behring as they visit churches, missions and hospitals, bringing wheelchairs donated by individuals and corporations.
She says, "It is such a worthy cause and my experiences have opened my eyes to so much in this world. I see people being pushed in wheelbarrows or being carried in the arms of their relatives and then there are others who are crawling on their hands and knees to come to the various meeting places to receive wheelchairs. So many of these people are crippled because of land mines. It's so sad."
Currently individuals in 50 countries are on the waiting list for wheelchairs. The need is greatest in developing countries and those in war-torn places with political instability.
Johnson is off to South Africa next and she will be assisting Behring as he hands out wheelchairs with Nelson Mandela (a member of the Foundation's Board of Advisors).
She has only words of praise for her employer.
"Ken is a wonderful man. He is generous and caring and makes it his personal mission to help others."
Behring's establishment of the Wheelchairs for the World Foundation marks the most recent chapter in his philanthropic efforts to improve the lives of disadvantaged people. He is well-known for establishing the Seattle Seahawks Charitable Foundation, the Blackhawk Automotive Museum, The U.C. Berkeley Museum of Art, Science and Culture and the Behring-Hofmann Educational Institute in Blackhawk, California, to benefit the San Francisco East Bay region.
In 1997 he pledged $20 million to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. For only the fourth time in the Smithsonian's 170-year history, the prestigious James Smithson Award was bestowed on Behring in recognition of his generosity and vision. He was also inducted into the American Academy of Achievement.
During his travels around the world, he has donated food, medical supplies, clothing, toys and educational materials to help people in many impoverished countries. His first-hand involvement has provided him with a realistic picture of the needs of people worldwide.
"It is so gratifying and rewarding to work with Ken on this cause," comments Johnson. "I feel fortunate to have this opportunity and now I want to get the word out to as many people as I can about Wheelchairs for the World."
The Foundation seeks contributions, endowments and corporate sponsorships to enable it to fulfil its humanitarian mission. For more information call 877-378-3839 or access the Foundation's website at www.wheelchairsfortheworld.org.