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Rural Missouri Magazine

The gift of mobility
PET project puts hope in motion for those in need

by Jason Jenkins

Volunteers Dick Parker and Nancy Gentzsch, both of Columbia, assemble an adult-size PET destined for Angola.

The estimate is conservative, but nonetheless sobering. In the developing world, about 21 million people — roughly three and a half times the population of Missouri — crawl along the ground because they have no other means of transportation.

Some are the victims of birth defects caused by malnutrition. Many have suffered the ravages of diseases such as polio that have left them crippled. Others have been maimed by land mines or lost limbs as casualties of war.

No matter the reason, these 21 million people, many of whom are children, drag themselves through the mud and the muck. They are both ignored and ridiculed, often cast aside by societies that consider their infirmities to be punishment for unknown sins.

Mel West is all too familiar with the situation. As a retired Methodist minister who has been in mission work for 40 years, he is active in fundraising and sending relief supplies overseas to those in need. In 1995, West received a request from Larry Hills, a missionary in the central African nation of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo).

“He said we need a hand-cranked, three-wheel wheelchair with hauling capacity that can go where conventional wheelchairs won’t go,” West recalls. “I called a friend of mine, Earl Miner, a product designer down in Marshfield. We made up a few prototypes, and that’s how PET got started in my garage.”

Despite losing both legs, this man in Gautemala is able to get around using a PET he received in 2006. Courtesy of the PET project, Columbia, Mo.

Over the past 14 years, PET (which stands for “personal energy transportation”) has grown from a garage operation with a handful of volunteers in central Missouri to an international organization with hundreds of volunteers around the globe. More than 16,000 PETs have been distributed in 69 countries, from Central and South America to Africa, Asia and even eastern Europe.

“The goal is to provide appropriate mobility for all of God’s people in need starting with those who need it most,” West says, noting that PET is an ecumenical faith-based group. “And appropriate is the key word there. The hand-cranked PET is not appropriate for a person who can’t crank one, so you find another means of providing mobility.”

While the Columbia facility is the largest, cranking out roughly half of the 3,000 PETs produced each year, 15 other shops have been set up in nine U.S. states and four foreign countries. Volunteers from rural Missouri, Michigan, Florida, Ohio and elsewhere make parts in their own basements and garages and send them to Columbia for assembly.

“Every one has a different story,” West says, gesturing to a world map on the wall in his office adorned with photos of people who have received PETs built in Columbia. He points to the photo of a young woman from Honduras.

Volunteer Roger Hofmeister, a retired doctor from Columbia, installs the upper chain guard on an adult-size PET.

“That’s Yolanda. When she was 4 years old, polio crippled her,” West says. “For 20 years, she crawled on the ground. Her parents said she was always very shy. She didn’t want people seeing her, so she didn’t go out much. But when she got her PET, they said immediately she was outgoing — out going someplace all the time. Now she goes up and down the street, selling fresh bread that her folks have made.”

Weighing about 90 pounds, the original PET is built on a steel frame with a treated wood bed. A bike chain directly connects the hand cranks to the front wheel. There are no derailleurs or coaster brakes, allowing the PET to be driven backward as well as forward.

Because PETs often are used in remote, rural areas, they are designed to be as maintenance-free as possible. Solid rubber tires eliminate the chance of flats. No special tools are needed to tighten the chain; a length of pipe and a pry bar will suffice.

In addition to the adult-size PET, the project produces a child-size PET and a Pull PET, which provides mobility to those who can neither walk nor have the upper body strength to crank an original PET. A prototype Push PET also is in development.

“It’s a tremendous advantage to the caretaker,” says West, a member of Boone Electric Cooperative. “We originally didn’t think about that as much, but once you get a handicapped child riding a PET, it takes a tremendous burden off the caretaker. It means almost as much to them as it does the child.”

Roger Hofmeister, a retired doctor from Columbia, started volunteering with the PET project about eight years ago. Today, he serves as the volunteer coordinator, working three to four days a week.

“There aren’t many things in the medical field that are as dramatic as the PET,” he says. “The impact this makes, it’s day and night.”

Thanks to the mobility provided by his PET, this man in Vietnam is able to earn a living by selling toys. Courtesy of the PET project, Columbia, Mo.

It costs about $250 to build a PET. “An ordinary wheelchair runs about $850, so we think that’s a bargain,” West says, noting that they must raise about $1,200 every day of the year in order to maintain the operation.

Russell Uthe, a Three Rivers Electric Cooperative member from Chamois, has donated his skills as a welder to the PET project for several years. He’s primarily built brake handles for the standard adult-size PET and the child-size PET, as well as some other miscellaneous parts.

“The pastor at church asked if I’d be interested in some volunteer welding. I had no idea what I was getting into,” he recalls. “Knowing that this isn’t just making somebody’s day, it’s making somebody’s life, a whole new way of life for someone who can’t get around. I’m glad to be a part of it.”

Though West arguably has been the central catalyst for the PET project’s success, ironically, he has never witnessed someone receiving a PET abroad.

“I just prefer to send younger people,” the 85-year-old says, referring to trips where volunteers help distribute PETs. “I’d rather send them than for me to go. I’m already hooked on it.”

For more information about the PET project, or to learn how you can get involved, call 573-886-7877 or go online to www.giftofmobility.org.

Rural Missouri magazine - April 2014 issue
 
 
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