Don Schoendorfer’s perspective and faith took a 180-degree turn when a family member was diagnosed with bulimia in 1994.
An MIT-trained engineer by trade, he had encountered a problem in his life that he couldn’t fix with his technical knowledge. Up until that point, everything else—his job, finances, and relationships—was under control, Schoendorfer said. He believed in God and said he had finally encountered a problem only God could solve.
“Suddenly it made me start to look much differently at the world and my role in the world,” Schoendorfer, of Santa Ana, California, told The Epoch Times. “I got the message from him [God] that I’m an engineer. Why can’t I use my engineering talents to help him?”
Schoendorfer recalled a scene from a Moroccan vacation nearly 20 years earlier. He saw a woman crawling across a busy dirt road, bloodied from dragging her legs behind her, hoping that no one would step on her. It was dehumanizing, he said.
“It was humanity. You can’t let a human live this way,” Schoendorfer said.
The idea for Free Wheelchair Mission, which has distributed more than 1.2 million wheelchairs in 94 countries since its 2001 inception, was born. Schoendorfer’s organization, which he founded from his garage with 100 wheelchair prototypes, distributes between 55,000 to 65,000 wheelchairs every year. The nonprofit has perfected the process of making cheap yet durable wheelchairs that cost less than $100 to manufacture, ship, and deliver.
Schoendorfer delivered his first wheelchair in 2001 in Chennai, India, after spending two years perfecting a design process that was both useful and cheap. That first generation from 20 years ago was simple: He attached a plastic lawn chair to a frame with two bicycle wheels and casters.
His first idea was to do a clinical trial, which he had familiarity with as an engineer in biotechnology, having worked for Texas Instruments, then in transdermal diagnostics and biometrics.
To conduct the trial, he would need thousands of chairs, but he could only afford 100 at a cost of about $50 each. His initial trip to India convinced him that people would donate to a cause that would help some of the estimated 75 million people in the world in need of a wheelchair.
“If I could share what I felt in that process to other people, I don’t know how they could not donate money,” Schoendorfer said.
His first delivery, near a card table clinic in a Chennai suburb through a missionary located there, filled a need for a family carrying a boy with a severe case of cerebral palsy. It was a memorable moment for Schoendorfer.
“They just basically put their son in a wheelchair and away they went,” he said. “And that changed the attitude quite a bit of my peers in India.”
It was the second delivery during his India trip that really brought the mission part of the organization to life. He traveled to a small rice patty slum with his companions and found a family with a disabled son, which forced them to take turns working, allowing them barely livable wages as a result. Now they could wheel him out while they worked and double their income, improving their quality of life.
When Schoendorfer returned from that trip, he discovered the company he was working for had declared bankruptcy. The timing allowed him to put his full effort into building Free Wheelchair Mission. Today, the nonprofit raises $10 million to $11 million per year through individual donors and events, such as the virtual Miracle of Mobility.
Schoendorfer said that although his organization isn’t evangelistic, its charity helps open the door to Christianity.
“We’re like a Bible printer company: We don’t go out and preach the gospel; we provide a tool for other people [partners] where they can give that message,” Schoendorfer said.
“Our ultimate goal is to provide a wheelchair for everybody in need in the world. We’ve got a lot of work left in our hands.”