Third World mobility via Saline workshop
by David Stringer
From the January, 2011 issue
Jack Spack's Septic Services on Carpenter Road is in farm country, with chickens clucking noisily in a nearby pen and peacocks out back. But neither the business nor the setting prepares a visitor for the work going on here tonight. In a remodeled garage at the back of the property, half a dozen volunteers are making all-terrain wheelchairs they'll donate to disabled people around the world.
This workshop east of Saline is a small part of PET (Personal Energy Transportation), a nonprofit headquartered in Missouri. PET was founded in 1995 by Larry Hills, a Christian missionary living in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Millions of refugees fleeing the Rwandan genocide had poured into the Congo and neighboring countries, spreading the conflict that would eventually claim more than 5 million lives. Hills saw a tremendous need for a way to enable those injured-often by landmines-or crippled by disease to earn a living and achieve some sort of normal life.
Will Minnette, a tall and energetic Saline resident, leads the volunteers. He explains that in much of the Third World, a man who can't provide for his family can't marry. He tells of an African couple who met and married when the man received a PET wheelchair and could gather vegetables for his wife to sell.
Remarkably, word of the need for rugged transport among the world's poorest residents started circulating twice in Saline, coming from two different sources. Jack Spack owners Vicky (Spack) Relitz and her husband, Duane, had already started to make "Pull PETs," carts used to haul people with no mobility at all over rough terrain. Then they heard about a second group working out of Saline's First United Methodist Church.
That project started when church member Bea Melendez took a group of underprivileged kids from the Cass Corridor in Detroit-youngsters who themselves were "one step from being homeless," Minnette says-down to Texas, where they volunteered in a workshop building PET chairs.
In the process, the kids learned to weld and to operate saws and drills. After taking several trips to Texas, the Methodists decided to open their own workshop in Saline. The Relitzes heard about the plan, sought them out, and donated the Carpenter Road garage to PET in April of 2009.
Since then it has undergone a thorough refitting into a workshop, with insulation and shelving to hold tools, safety glasses, gloves, paint, and materials to be cut and assembled. One wall of the shop accommodates a line of power tools, including a drill press, saws, and a router. On the wall, pieces of wood are marked with cutting and assembly instructions to guide the mostly novice workers-today including three young women from Ann Arbor Pioneer High School and Minnette's eight-year-old son, L.B.
Minnette, who works as director of information services at Automotive Dealer Management, Inc., says local fund-raising comes from the Saline Lions Club and Ann Arbor Rotary, as well as numerous private donors. The church underwrites the shop's insurance. Though PET's mission, according to the organization's website, is "to reflect the love of Jesus Christ by bringing mobility and dignity to those in developing countries who are unable to walk," there's no sign of Christian proselytizing at the workshop-only Christian charity.
The wheelchairs are really hand-powered tricycles, designed to give disabled people access to work and a regular life where rough terrain makes conventional wheelchairs impractical. They're driven by the circular motion of the user's hands, rotating a small cogwheel linked by a chain to the chair's front wheel. Designed by an aircraft engineer, the chairs are built for durability-tires are solid rubber, not inflated-with a simple and practical design that makes for easy reassembly and repair in villages without many tools or parts. In fact, they are shipped with a wrench and Phillips screwdriver, along with replacement bearings and other parts most prone to wear. Though they are not literally "all-terrain vehicles"-limitations include the arm strength of the driver and the roughness of the terrain-a low gear ratio allows the PETs to work off-road, and direct drive makes them easy to reverse.
As his dad explains the chairs to a visiting reporter, L.B. tries to get him back to work by bringing out cans of red, green, and blue paint. The bright colors were chosen, Minnette says, because people find them "uplifting." One PET, though, was painted purple and white. Volunteers from Pioneer High, who had heard of the project through an Ann Arbor Rotary meeting, donated $250-enough for one PET-and persuaded Minnette to paint it in their school colors.
Due to the time and money spent creating the shop and training volunteers, the Saline PET unit has thus far produced only a dozen or so wheelchairs, but Minnette hopes to produce a hundred per year in the near future. He estimates that PET International ships about one thousand units per year, including 150 recently purchased by the U.S. military for use in Iraq.
Coincidentally, Ten Thousand Villages on Main Street in Ann Arbor also raises funds to purchase rough-terrain wheelchairs. Volunteers at the "fair trade" store raise money through sales of donated vintage jewelry, and this year they pledged $2,000 to the Bombolulu Workshops in Kenya, where the chairs will be built and distributed to needy Kenyans. "The benefits are immense," says store manager Susan Rogal. "Society weeds out those who can't keep up."
"This absolutely changes lives," longtime store volunteer Kathy Wilkinson adds. "It gives people a sense of independence. Self-esteem just soars."
Neither Minnette nor Rogal sees much use for the simple, rugged chairs in the heavily paved United States. Other factors discouraging use here, according to Minnette, are this country's product liability laws and willingness to sue. That course of action would seem foreign indeed to the PET wheelchairs' grateful recipients.
The PET workshop is located at 7415 Carpenter Road. It operates Tuesdays from 7-9 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m.-noon. The shop can be contacted by email at email@example.com.
[Originally published in January, 2011.]