ELLSWORTH— For a dozen years, the parents of 13-year-old Carlos carried him everywhere they went throughout their hometown of Panama City, Panama.
The family could not afford to buy their son a wheelchair after he was abruptly afflicted with cerebral palsy as a baby after a bout with a very high fever.
But all that changed after a March visit from the Ellsworth and Bar Harbor Rotary clubs. For local Rotarians, giving back to the world doesn’t stop within the boundaries of Hancock County: the service organization distributed 110 wheelchairs to needy and disabled people throughout Panama.
Ellsworth Rotary Club President David Wells said that while it was difficult to see people living in such poverty-stricken conditions, “you knew that good was coming out of it.”
Wells and 15 other Ellsworth and Bar Harbor Rotarians, their spouses and one Ellsworth High School senior made the weeklong trip from Boston to Panama on March 13.
The trip was Ellsworth Rotary’s first international project since it purchased an ambulance to send to Guatemala eight years ago.
The clubs decided to combine their volunteer efforts after a presentation from the Canadian Wheelchair Foundation. The organization showed how great a need there is for wheelchairs in poor countries. A video showed people with disabilities getting around by sliding on blocks on their hands and knees.
“I found it very moving,” Wells said.
The clubs chose Panama to distribute wheelchairs in part because Susie Davis, chairman of the Bar Harbor club’s international committee, is a Santiago native.
“Last year, I was in visiting Panama after eight years of not being there,” Davis said. “I saw that need there [for wheelchairs] and said, ‘I think I need to do something.’”
The clubs decided to each purchase 30 wheelchairs for $150 per chair, and distribute them throughout the country. A group of Rotarians from Canada provided the other 50 wheelchairs.
Once they arrived in Panama, the Rotarians joined forces with Panama City service group Club Activo, as well as Panama City and Santiago Rotarians, who helped store and distribute the wheelchairs.
For Wells, a retired FedEx pilot, the most satisfying part of the trip was the third day, when the group drove out to the outskirts of Santiago. There, the group provided a wheelchair to a Taquo, the patriarch of a family of nine, who has been disabled since being involved in a truck accident at the factory where he worked.
“You could see his first chair, the tires were pretty much gone,” Wells said.
That family lives in a 110-square-foot room on the factory’s property, and has to walk to the factory to use the bathroom.
“They have a little open stove and that’s it — that’s how they are surviving,” Wells said. “It was very, very moving.”
“It broke my heart right in that moment, but I felt so good that we could provide him that chair and give the gift of mobility, of independence,” Davis said. “I felt very good that we could help.”
The local press got word of what the Rotarians were doing for the man, and printed a story about it on its front page the following day.
“Now the local government will have to deal with it a little bit,” Wells said. “It was a great unintended, positive consequence.” The local Habitat for Humanity may also provide the family with a larger home.
The Rotarians also brought down 400 pounds of donated school supplies, such as soccer balls, backpacks and pens and pencils to Aporte de la Comunidad Educativa, a school for 70 children in Santiago.
Back home, the 57 members of the Ellsworth Rotary Club are gearing up for the group’s annual charity auction on May 8 at Darling’s Auto Mall. On Aug. 8, the club will hold its annual pancake breakfast, this year at Knowlton Park.
It is clear that the trip to Panama was an inspiring experience.
Davis said, “The whole trip was wonderful. I just hope that the clocks do not stop here, that we can do more international projects, either in Panama or another part of the world.”