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Refurbishing Wheelchairs, Touching Lives

March 12, 2010, 10:00 PM by Courtney Zieller

Refurbishing Wheelchairs, Touching Lives
SIOUX FALLS, SD - South Dakota State Penitentiary inmates don't just sit around in their cells. They work. And many spend their time on projects that benefit our community and places around the world. One project has already helped the lives of more than 15,000 people in more than 100 countries.

Jeff Howard spends his days building and refurbishing wheelchairs.

"There are times we work with foot rests. There are times we work with sewing projects. I've been involved in everything from small to these kinds of chairs to baby chairs,"Jeff Howard said.

Howard is one of 60 inmates who work together on a daily basis to get chairs to look brand new.

"If you're mechanically skilled then it's pretty easy but if you're not, guys can misunderstand what you're doing but most people, it's pretty easy once you're show them how to do it," Howard said.

But for these inmates it's not about the skill, it's about helping those who can't walk.

"I don't do it to get something out of it. I do it so someone else gets something out of it, not me. It's for God's glory not mine," Howard said.

The South Dakota State Penitentiary teams up with Hope Haven International, a Ministry that helps people with disabilities. They've been working together for more than a decade.

"We found out back in 1994 when we first started our wheelchair ministry that somewhere around 21 million people around the world needed wheelchairs but couldn't afford them and since then that number has really increased. We've heard its as high as 60 million," Hope Haven Marlow Vanginkel said.

To date, people in 106 countries around the world have benefited.

"Romania, Vietnam, Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Central America countries, Mexico and some of those places," Vanginkel said.

And each of the chairs is a gift. Thanks to donations, those who receive them don't have to pay a cent.

"We get these from individuals, we get them from nursing homes, hospitals, all of the U.S. and Canada so they're given to us for free," Vanginkel said.

And no matter what a wheelchair looks like, every donation makes a difference.

"Sometimes we'll have to take them and use them for parts but you'll have food on them, rust, grease and's bad sometimes," Howard said.

But no matter the condition, these chairs come out looking brand new and will go to someone who needs it.

"The chairs that come out of here are really awesome. they do a fantastic job of refurbishing," Vanginkel said.

Before the wheelchair is ready to ship out, a tag is placed on the arm of the chair. It lists who donated it and their address and there's a reason why.

"There's a gal at the headquarters and she'll get these (tags) and take pictures and she will go back with these on where the chair went," Howard said.

That way, the recipient knows where their gift originated and know that someone cares about them half-way around the world.

"I had a little eight-year-old girl and the very first thing she said in spanish was now I get to go to school with my friends," Vanginkel said.

"I just hope people understand what we do in here and what we do for the world out there and this is a ministry and I hope people can give too," Howard said.

For Howard it's more than a job, it's a way to make the world a little better one chair at a time.

The pen is always accepting old or new wheelchairs.

To donate visit Hope Haven's Web site.

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