Donating a wheelchair makes a difference

When Theresa George arrived in Thailand from Charlotte, she ran into something she recognized.

Among the hundreds of refurbished wheelchairs she and her mission team distributed throughout two and a half weeks, she recognized a sticker on one. It read: "This wheelchair is given in love from Jordan."

Jordan is a young man with cerebral palsy. George met him in 2010 at Joni and Friends Family Camp, a weekly summer gathering in Flat Rock for special-needs children and their families. George volunteers there.

Jordan's family donated the wheelchair in his honor to Wheels for the World, a Joni and Friends ministry that gives wheelchairs to people worldwide.

George emailed Jordan's family a picture of the wheelchair's new owner, an elderly Thai woman, as she sat grinning in her new chair.

"It was incredible for me and for (Jordan)," George said. "That was a great reminder of how important it is for people to donate their wheelchairs."

George, a recent Cabarrus College grad, returned earlier this month from Thailand, which gave away 300 wheelchairs to children and adults in three cities. Joni and Friends collects used wheelchairs from all over the U.S., sends them to a prison in California to be refurbished and then ships them overseas.

George learned about the trip to Thailand on the Joni and Friends website and joined a group based primarily in northern California. She said her understanding of people with special needs began nine years ago, when she became a caregiver for a young woman in Charlotte with special needs.

"Before working with her, I was like a lot of people and almost scared of people with disabilities, because I didn't know what to say and do," George said. "She opened up my eyes to people with disabilities."

Before long, George began volunteering with Joni and Friends, a ministry founded by Joni Eareckson Tada, who became a quadriplegic after a diving accident in 1967. Tada later wrote the bestselling autobiography "Joni," which was made into a movie. Joni is now an international advocate for people with disabilities.

George, 30, works as an occupational therapist with Carolinas Medical Center.

In Thailand, George worked with a team of therapists and technicians, adjusting wheelchairs for owners and talking with families through an interpreter.

Most people, she learned, were housebound without a wheelchair.

A few were mobile, such as one woman paralyzed from the waist down whose knuckles were hardened from scooting across the ground on them.

One 70-year-old man carried his wife up and down the stairs every day.

"I just saw incredible love these families had for each other," George said. She also saw tears in mothers' eyes as their children were fitted for wheelchairs.

George told each family that God loved them. George said she will continue volunteering with Joni and Friends.

"I've already gained more than I've given," she said. "It gives you a greater appreciation for the abilities of people who have supposed disabilities. There's so much they have to teach."