Vol. 15, No. 40, March 31, 2003

Wheelchairs for Vietnam

Joe Gaskins
Joe Gaskins makes his presentation.

Throughout the war-ravaged areas of the world, landmines and disease lurk, taking their toll on innocent people. One of these places is Vietnam – the site of heavy fighting from the mid-fifties until the war ended in 1973 – a country that attracts Joe Gaskins, a paraplegic himself.

Joe is the husband of Jane Porter (Gaskins), the BBRC’s guest speaker on Valentine’s Day who told of her blooming career writing romance novels. Rourke O’Brien, who introduced Joe, read the bio of Joe from his wife’s website. Needless to say, it was written like a romance novel!

Because of his own situation, Joe became interested in the plight of others who may require a wheelchair for transportation. He became involved in the Wheelchair Foundation and agreed to travel to Vietnam for a distribution of wheelchairs during the week of March 16-23, 2003.

“First, let me thank you for your generosity to this project. So many people in the world can’t move about freely. There is an estimated 100 million people who need wheelchairs. Vietnam is one of those areas where injuries and death still strike people, particularly from landmines,” Joe said. “This is the most inaccessible country I’ve visited. One of the major transportation vehicles is a cyclo. After one distribution ceremony, I saw a disabled person strap their new wheelchair onto a cyclo and then set off into traffic. Transportation is heavily dominated by mopeds. The honking of horns is ear-splitting. The traffic is almost a dance. There’s an ebb and flow that’s hard to describe. I’ll wager that Hertz or Avis will not be renting cars there anytime soon! The cars still use leaded gas and the fumes are smothering.”

Vietnam’s literacy rate is 94%. They are set to join the World Trade Organization in 2005. “From what I saw, in 10 years, this country will be a tremendous economy.

Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, has 8 million population. An organization called the Women’s Union represents 11 million women in all 61 provinces of Vietnam. They are key to the needs of their citizens. The women’s group is lobbying the government to improve accessibility issues.”

Joe described the itinerary of the group making the wheelchair distribution. In addition to Ho Chi Minh City, the party flew to Da Nang, and then drove to Hue. They visited an inpatient clinic, where surgery is sdone on those who’ve been stricken by disease (polio) or landmines. The next stop was Quan Tri, at the DMZ. It’s the site of the most devastating fighting during the Vietnam War. There are lots of birth defects in the children.

Shrader, O'Brien
Presiden Kim Shrader presents Joe Gaskins with a certificate for 240 doses of Polio vaccine, donated in his name.

David Behring, President of Wheelchair Foundation, and a member of the Diablo Valley, California, Rotary Club was somewhat of a dignitary with our tour. “Our purpose was to attend various distributions of wheelchairs to disabled persons. Dave Barry, a Rotarian from Hawaii, was a particular favorite of the people. He is 6 foot 5, and the kids loved him. We saw people crawling or being carried in to get their wheelchairs. An 11-year-old boy gets around on a board with a handle attached. We saw a training facility to teach people various trades, including building wheelchairs. They are a very independent people and want to take care of their own.”

The group saw support from organizations based on Bainbridge Island. There are several that have taken up the crusade to help people who’ve lost limbs to landmines. The First Presbyterian Church in Bainbridge has been a long-time supporter of these projects.

After the visit mid-country, the group when on to the capital city of Hanoi – where another 8 million people live. “It’s more temperate in the north, much less humidity. Our tour took us to POW facilities that were built by the French. Hanoi is an interesting city, but extremely poor. There’s not a lot of industry.”

The group attended another distribution of wheelchairs in Hanoi. Joe was the first person who was confined to a wheelchair to go on a distribution trip sponsored by the Wheelchair Foundation. His main job was to help answer questions regarding the use of wheelchairs to those who received them for the first time.

Rourke O'Brien
Rourke O’Brien makes the introduction.

With Rotary’s interest in reducing injuries and deaths from landmines, and projects to develop prosthetics for those disabled, this was a timely presentation. Rotary International has linked up the Behring’s Wheelchair Foundation to provide chairs for people suffering the world over.

In recognition of his presentation to the BBRC, Joe Gaskins was given a certificate noting the purchase of 240 doses of polio vaccine. Thanks to Rourke O’Brien for his introduction.


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