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Bemidji High School: Student group sends wheelchairs overseas

Joe Wood, left, treasurer of the Bemidji High School's Interact Club, hands teacher Elizabeth Neff a jar for collecting money for the Free Wheelchair Mission. Students in the Interact Club asked teachers to volunteer to sit in a wheelchair until they collect $60 from teachers and students for the cause. Students Kali Dale, right, Interact Club vice president, and Cody Puffe, president, assist in giving Neff the wheelchair. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

They come in electric or manual models, with fixed or swing-away foot mounting, gel or wet batteries, and a choice of either swing-away, drop-in, elevating or platform leg rests.

When it comes to choosing a wheelchair, there are numerous decisions to be made.

A group of students at Bemidji High School recognize that in many developing countries around the world, there are hundreds of people who have none of these choices because they cannot afford to buy a wheelchair.

From Nov. 9-24, students in the BHS Interact Club, a student-run, volunteer-based group, are raising money to send wheelchairs to impoverished disabled people living in developing nations.

Interact members have asked teachers to volunteer to sit in a wheelchair until they fill a jar with at least $60, enough to send one wheelchair to a developing country. So far, the fundraiser has been a huge success.

On their first day, three teachers sat in wheelchairs and the Interact Club raised $460.

"We originally planned to give out one wheelchair a day, so we were really impressed," said student Cody Puffe, Interact club president.

So far the Interact Club has raised $1,200 for the cause. With one more week to go, they hope to reach their total goal of $1,500.

The fundraiser is for the Free Wheelchair Mission, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to providing wheelchairs for disabled persons in need in developing nations. FWM, headquartered in California, has distributed 400,000 wheelchairs to more than 70 countries.

The FWM wheelchair is specially developed for use in rugged terrain. It includes a resin lawn chair that is placed onto a custom steel frame tucked into a pair of mountain bike tires.

"Sixty dollars is inexpensive for a wheelchair and it gets people off the ground," said Diane Landgrebe, the group's adult adviser.

Two factories in Shanghai, China, manufacture the wheelchairs. The factories load the chairs into shipping containers, which hold 550 wheelchair kits, along with cushions, hand pumps, patch kits and assorted hardware. The containers are trucked from the factories and are loaded on freighter ships to the country specified by the FWM.

The wheelchairs are distributed at ceremonies, large or small, or are distributed individually as needed.

In its first week, the Interact Club raised enough money to buy 15 wheelchairs. The FWM agreed to match their monetary donations from the first week, which increased the total number of wheelchairs to 30. Since the first week, the group received enough funding for 10 more wheelchairs.

"The teachers have been really helpful," said student Kali Dale, vice president of the Interact Club.

According to FWM, hundreds of millions of people in developing nations struggle with a variety of disabilities, which is why BHS students in the Interact Club want to help.

"Part of our club's mission is to do service work through international organizations," said Puffe.

Although the Interact Club is centered on volunteerism, there is no mandated number of hours students must volunteer. There is also no minimum grade point attain in order to become a member.

"Our Club is similar to National Honor Society, but it's open to anyone. We just ask each member to volunteer some of their time," said Puffe.

This year's Interact Club has 15 student members. Officers are Puffe, president; Dale, vice president; Joe Wood, treasurer; and Roberta Fultz, secretary.