Dozens of elementary and middle school kids have a new perspective on what it means to be wheelchair bound.
Schools teamed up with Danville-based Wheelchair Foundation to learn and to help raise funds for the organization, thanks to foundation advocate Don Routh, who brought the project to the Pleasanton school district, which embraced the idea.
All materials -- wheelchairs, posters, videos and more -- were supplied by foundation volunteers. The kids took the idea and ran with it, holding basketball shoot-a-thons, among other things, to raise money for the foundation.
"We did an obstacle course," said Catherina Lilja, a student in Laura Castro's seventh-grade class at Harvest Park Middle School in Pleasanton. "We let students pick a wheelchair that fit their size."
"It was really hard to turn around the cones and get through it and it was hard to go up the ramp," said Janae Indalecio, another of Castro's students. Castro said some of the teachers had difficulty navigating the course, too.
Students were also able to send a gram, like a telegram, a note to other students at the school for a small fee, Gabriella Smith said. Castro said the school raised about $50 that way.
Eight schools were part of the pilot program, and together they raised more than $10,500, enough for 70 wheelchairs. Harvest Park brought in about $1,700, and Lydiksen raised $5,000.
But the effort was about more than fundraising. Students in Castro's class were able to tie their learning to their study of Central America, where the wheelchairs are headed.
"It was something geographically relevant for the students," Castro said.
Others, like those in Mary Singh's Spanish class -- also at Harvest Park -- hope to write letters to the wheelchair recipients, who receive stamped envelopes along with their wheelchairs so they can correspond with those who provided them.
"It teaches kids to be philanthropic from an early age," Routh said.
Students also learned how difficult it can be to get around on wheels instead of walking.
"When we were in a wheelchair, it was harder because we couldn't use our legs," said Mia Markovic, one of Castro's students. She said giving the wheelchairs to those who need them "gives them so much more freedom, so many more things they can do."
Castro said teachers also discovered that schools aren't as handicap accessible as they thought, and they learned that they'd have to make some adjustments should they have a wheelchair-bound student. In her class, for example, desks are attached to each other, which would make it difficult for a student in a wheelchair to get through and unable to use one of the desks.
Students also got a first-hand look at some of the prejudices people have against the disabled.
"When I was in a wheelchair, an eighth-grader came up and pushed the chair and tried to push me over," said Isabella Chin, another of Castro's students.
It's hard to say if those students were teasing Chin as part of the project or not, since, Castro said, the entire school wasn't involved in the effort.
The idea of using schools to raise money started out a few years ago, at Routh's 40th high school reunion. There, he met up with a classmate who now works at Treeview Elementary, a Title I school in Hayward.
"I've been involved as an advocate," Routh said.
He learned about the foundation through Rotary; his son Josh suffers from cerebral palsy and has been wheelchair bound for most of his life, so the idea of distributing chairs to others was especially poignant for Routh.
"What we decided was, in addition to raising money from our friends and family, we decided to work with the schools," Routh explained.
He and Josh pitched the idea to the kids at Treeview, stressing that they could make a difference in the lives of those less fortunate than them.
"The kids got all excited and they decided to save their nickels and pennies," Routh said. "They raised $270 the first year."
Routh kicked in the rest, so the students paid for two wheelchairs that were sent to Chile along with T-shirts. Pictures of the wheelchair recipients were shown to students the next year, when they raised $300, which bought two wheelchairs that were sent to El Salvador.
"Then, Bill (Wheeler, owner of Black Tie Transportation) and Josh and I were talking and said, 'If they can raise that kind of money, what can we raise out here in the valley?'"
For Routh and his team, working with schools to raise money has become more than just a good fundraising plan.
"We started to raise the awareness of kids about the need for mobility and also to sensitize them about how to be around people with disabilities, of being more comfortable with people in a wheelchair," he said. "A wheelchair is just something that helps them. You shouldn't feel sorry for them, you should feel sorry for someone who doesn't have a wheelchair."
Routh said his project is easily integrated into school curricula.
In elementary school, for example, he said students can read stories about people in wheelchairs. Others may learn the history of wheelchairs, which, Routh said, began with a wheeled bed that dates to the sixth century. In high schools, students in physiology class can learn about the calories burned while using a wheelchair.
"We had 10 schools participate in this trial period last year, and the purpose of this wheelchair project was to raise awareness of the need for mobility and at the same time to raise money so that the students here could have an impact on peoples' lives across the world, in this case, Latin America," Routh said.
It's estimated that 100 million people worldwide need a wheelchair. Castro said that need also affects family members who may not be able to attend school or work because they're needed to care for their disabled relative.
"Bill and Josh and I have personally delivered 6,600 wheelchairs in 12 trips to countries in Latin America," Routh said. "Our goal is to deliver wheelchairs in all 21 countries."
Routh, Josh and Wheeler have been focusing their efforts on Central and South America. Shipping containers hold 280 wheelchairs, and this year, those purchased with money raised by Pleasanton schools will go in a container headed to Guatemala.
Next year, Routh is hoping that all the schools in Pleasanton and San Ramon will get involved, along with one in Oakland and Treeview in Hayward.
"I'm going around to all the schools and I expect that all or nearly all will do it," he said. "So far, I've been to 34 or 35 and they're all in."
Next year Routh hopes to add more districts, area wide, and eventually, California wide.
"Whenever someone like me raises $42,000, then we can work with the Wheelchair Foundation," Routh said. "They actually have two or three people who can arrange transportation."
"We raise the money for the wheelchairs and then we go on the trips themselves to distribute them," he added.
Some of the teachers who were involved in the fundraising effort will go on this trip. Students 16 and up can go if they provide documentation, and those 13 and older can go with a parent.
"They have to pay their own way, of course," Routh said. "It's an opportunity for the teachers, the parents and the students to go."
He said he's seen recipients on his trips who were crawling, being transported on donkeys and carried by their parents.
The Wheelchair Foundation was started in 2000 by Ken Behring of Blackhawk. So far, it has delivered 925,000 wheelchairs to people in 155 countries. Routh said it's one way to have a direct, immediate impact not only on the wheelchair recipient but on the whole family.
It also has an impact on those giving out the wheelchairs, he said -- "It's a life-changing experience."