One happy recipient gets her new wheelchair in Santa Cruz

Daybreak Rotary rolling in to help

Wheelchairs for those who can’t afford them makes a huge difference for communities in developing countries

When someone came to talk to Daybreak Rotary in 2003 about the global need for wheelchairs and the difference they make in not only the lives of those who use them, but the entire community surrounding those people, it had a profound affect on Hansi Zihlmann.

“I just knew I had to be part of helping,” Zihlmann says. “Something clicked in me, I guess you could say. It was very emotional, actually, and I just threw myself into it.”

There are over 160 million people around the world who need a wheelchair but can’t get one, according to the World Health Organization, and that’s a crushing statistic for Zihlmann.

“So we started fundraising,” he says, simply, and over the past eight years have delivered thousands of wheelchairs around the world to people who need them but would otherwise be without.

This year is their 10th year doing this. They fundraise two years in advance of a delivery, so this year’s fundraising effort is for the Wheelchairs for Guatemala 2018 delivery. Previous deliveries have been made to Peru, Venezuela, Argentina, the Philippines, Columbia, South Africa, Bolivia, and Vietnam. Next year’s delivery will be going to Indonesia. Eventually, Zihlmann says, they want to deliver at least one container of wheelchairs to every country in South America along with many in Asia.

The effort started at the Royal Coachman, but eventually became so popular they needed to expand to a larger facility, so in 2008 they started holding their now-annual Dancing and Tapas fundraiser with the help of the NIC culinary arts students. That year they made $36,000 at the event. The following year they made $42,000, “and now we can raise enough for an entire container of wheelchairs, more or less, in just that one night – and that’s about $50,000.”

A shipping container holds 280 wheelchairs, and each year they personally deliver one somewhere in the world, usually with the help of Rotarians on the other end.

“The only time we didn’t have Rotary on the other side was in Vietnam,” Zihlmann says, so they relied on other groups to find recipients in need, but usually it’s a collaborative and cooperative effort between Rotary chapters. The Campbell River team fundraises and buys the wheelchairs while the chapter on the other end figures out who’s going to receive them.

“Many of these places don’t have any social safety nets or medical safety nets. The middle class – if there is a middle class – or the wealthy are the only ones who can go to a doctor in these places,” Zihlmann says.

“And It’s not even about wheelchairs, really, when it comes right down to it,” Zihlmann says. “It’s about connecting and reaching out to communities around the world who need the help.”

But don’t think when they say they want to help the global community, that they ignore what’s happening here.

They’ve also distributed wheelchairs to people here in Campbell River.

“Anybody who needs a wheelchair and isn’t able to buy,” Zihlmann says, “we will help them. These things retail for about $850 each.”

Their chairs, he says, are significantly less expensive than if someone wants to just order one. They are made of bicycle tubing by a company called Drive Medical, Zihlmann says, and built in China in bulk, so they are both very sturdy and relatively inexpensive.

“We pay about $175,” Zihlmann says.

But even at that price, Zihlmann says, one of the problems of funding such an endeavour is that not only do they buy the wheelchairs in U.S. Dollars – so they have to watch that number closely to know how much they will need – but the cost of the chairs, seemingly, is always going up, as well.

They used to be able to get a container full of wheelchairs for $40,000, but these days, between the Canadian/U.S. exchange rate and ever-increasing price of the chairs, it’s closer to $60,000.

“We might be a bit behind the eight ball this year,” Zihlmann says, “but I guess we’ll see. It’s too early to tell.”

But that financial struggle, if there is one, won’t likely be because they don’t sell out the event. Dancing and Tapas is always a sellout, he says, and a big part of what makes it so popular is the food.

A chef by trade – he was the chef at the Discovery Inn for 13 years before a car accident took him out of the kitchen – Zihlmann knows the power of a good dinner. So each year, with the help of the NIC culinary students and staff, they create an extravaganza of culturally-representative food from the place they’re raising money to deliver wheelchairs to. In exchange for the help of NIC students and staff, they provide two $250 bursaries and one $2,000 travel bursary for one student to come along on the delivery.

“It’s probably the biggest culinary show you’ve ever seen,” Zihlmann says with a laugh. “And this year we have Reunion playing, who are a great local band, so it’s going to be lots of fun.”

They also ask ticket holders to bring a bottle of wine to add to the night’s raffle. Each dinner ticket is an entry into the raffle, but additional tickets can be purchased at the event, as well.Tickets for this year’s event are $50 and are available at North Island College, the Royal Coachman Neighbourhood Pub, through Cindy Evans at Vancouver Island InsuranceCentres, at Needle & Arts Craft Centre on Shoppers Row, Amy’s Asian Foods & Cafe or by contacting them on Facebook – just search “Wheelchairs for Guatemala 2018.”