By Andrea Siedsma
When Robert Fernandez asked the people who have guided and encouraged him throughout his life how he could repay them, their answers were simple and consistent: Just pay it forward.
Fernandez, who is an instructor at the OSHA Training Institute Education Center at UC San Diego, took that advice to heart, giving back to his community both through the work he does in the safety field and through volunteer service.
This spring, however, Fernandez was able to pay it forward in ways he could never imagine. At the urging of a friend, he served as a translator in Ecuador as part of the Free Wheelchair Mission. When Fernandez heard about the organization’s mission to provide wheelchairs at no cost to people with disabilities living in developing nations, he knew he had to be a part of its efforts.
“(My friend) showed me a video of people being delivered in wheel barrels, and with wood pallets being drug along, and people in the back of pickup trucks unable to walk. It was just heart wrenching,” Fernandez said.
Since its inception in 2001, Free Wheelchair Mission has provided about 844,120 wheelchairs in 91 countries around the world and has a goal to distribute 1 million wheelchairs by the end of 2016. The organization estimates that there are about 100 million people around the world today in need of a wheelchair without the means to obtain one.
During their Ecuador mission this spring, Fernandez and the group traveled to three cities in the jungles of Ecuador next to the Napo River, and two cities in the Andes Mountains, giving away 551 free wheelchairs in the process.
“The recipients of the wheelchairs were filled with gratitude, often crying and thanking us while kissing our hands for the independence the chairs provide to them,” said Fernandez, a Southern California native who grew up in Whittier, Calif. “Just about the time that’s over, here come the relatives hugging you and thanking you for the burden that’s been lifted from them.”
As an Occupational Safety and Health Department instructor for Extension, Fernandez was especially sensitive to how poverty and the lack of safety regulations could irrevocably change a person’s life.
“My heart went out to one brother who fell at work from 18 feet installing a sign,” he said. “This could have been avoided and now he is in a wheelchair for life.”
Other wheelchair recipients included a 14-year-old girl who was disabled from a moped accident, a woman in her 30s who had a stroke and an 80-year-old man who broke his hip after falling out of a mango tree, suffering on the ground until he was found two days later.
But of all those he helped on his trip to Ecuador, Fernandez said it was the wife of a jewelry store owner who stands out in his mind. Unable to walk because of birth defects, the wheelchair provided a new chapter in her life as well as her husband’s.
Fernandez – who plans to go back to Ecuador again next year as part of the Free Wheelchair Mission – has kept in touch with the jewelry store owner and even called him the week after he returned to San Diego.
“I asked him how things were going, and he said for the first time in two years he took his wife for a walk along the river,” he said. “The free wheelchairs really do improve the quality of life for these people. It’s about helping another human being….You receive much more than you give.”