Vietnam Veterans of America
Idaho Falls, Idaho, Bob Taylor Memorial Chapter 972
Standing Up for the Seated:
One hundred is quite a lot of anything.
It’s even more so when those things are electric wheelchairs.
Members of VVA’s Idaho Falls Bob Taylor Memorial Chapter 972 and about ninety friends came together earlier this year to celebrate that exact milestone: donating their hundreth refurbished powered wheelchair to a veteran in need.
The theme of the evening was “What the Program Means to Me.” Many of the recipients of the previous ninety-nine wheelchairs attended the event. A few took the stage to express their gratitude and discuss what a difference the donated chairs had made in their lives.
Checks were presented and blankets and quilts auctioned off to benefit the program. But the centerpiece of the event was the guest of honor, Mark Yearsley, an Army veteran from Twin Falls, Idaho, who lost a leg during the conflict in Darfur.
Yearsley is the executive director of Outdoor Salute to Veterans, an organization that arranges fishing, camping, and hunting trips, as well as other outdoor activities for wounded veterans and their families as part of their recovery process. Because of the nature of his work, he was presented with quite a special wheelchair: a six-wheeled, all-terrain powerhouse designed for off-road use.
“Because of this gift we’re going to be able to go a lot of places we’ve not been able to,” Yearsley said. “We’re going to live again.”
Two short years ago, when Chapter 972’s Frank Smith decided to help out a friend of a friend, he couldn’t have imagined his single act of kindness would explode into a project that would do so much good. So quickly. For so many.
“Of course I knew it was worthy cause, but I’m still amazed at the attention it’s getting,” Smith said. “It all started when a friend of one of our members wanted to donate his recently deceased father’s powered wheelchair to a veteran who could use one.”
They picked up the chair, and with the help of a local autobody shop in Shelley, Idaho, set out to refurbish it in a style befitting a wounded warrior.
“Brett Waters, the owner over at DeeRay’s Autobody, said he would be happy to help us ready this chair for one of America’s heroes,” Smith said. But this was not to be a simple wipe-down and once-over; Waters and his employees broke the chair down, completely cleaned and lubricated parts where needed, and replaced or refurbished other parts. The wheelchair’s upholstery was in “tired” shape, so Waters phoned his friend Randy Walker of Walker’s Upholstery in Basalt, Idaho, for help. He happily accepted the challenge.
The chair, now in like-new condition, was painted Huey green and stenciled with “VVA Chapter 972” and the VVA logo. Period-correct but disarmed M-16 rounds were affixed to the rear wheel hubs, and a five-inch VVA patch was sewn into the back of the headrest.
This first completed chair was delivered to a Navy veteran at the Idaho State Veterans Home in Pocatello, Idaho. And a new project was born.
Smith began to think about the ever-growing need for wheelchairs among veterans.
“The body armor the Army has developed has gotten quite good at protecting the torso, but this means a lot of vets are returning with missing limbs. Plus the veterans of earlier wars are aging fast. The demand for chairs is at an all-time high,” he said, “and getting a powered chair from the VA or Medicare is nearly impossible.”
Smith discussed with Chapter 972 President Bob Reinisch the possibility of putting what they learned with the first chair to work for other veterans. Since then, Reinisch says the chapter has picked up powered wheelchairs and electric scooters from all over the Rocky Mountain States. He once drove to Wyoming to get sixteen chairs at once.
“It absolutely blew up. I wasn’t expecting so many chairs to pass through our hands,” Waters said.
“We’ve gotten calls from as far away as Vermont and Oregon,” Reinisch said. “But it’s a blessing. We’re not complaining.”
Manpower can also be an issue. “Brett is happy to donate his time refurbishing chairs for veterans when he can,” Reinisch said, “but he still works full time repairing cars for a living and cannot be expected to sacrifice his business.”
Reinisch contacted nearby Shelley High School, suggesting students could help Waters refurbish chairs as their mandatory senior service projects. He said he was speaking to other schools as well.
Forming A Better Charity
Then they hit on a snag. As they raised their sights and their financial needs increased, potential backers backed away. Most large corporations require that any organization seeking funding be certified as a 501(c)3. So the chapter formed the Veterans Mobility Corp, and filed a Form 1023 with the IRS. Once the IRS certified VMC as a 501(c)3, the organization could conform with donor requirements, and soliciting grants became much easier.
Reinisch and Waters said their biggest needs are cash donations and batteries. No matter how good the condition of a chair is, batteries are almost always at the ends of their lives.
As proficient as the group has become refurbishing the chairs, they will never sate the need for them. “I’d like to see this project spread—at least across the country,” Smith said. “Powered wheelchairs are so hard to obtain through the VA, and so many of these chairs end up in the garbage. It could help so many people.
“As we were leaving the Pocatello Veterans Home after delivering that very first wheelchair, a nurse stopped us in the hallway. She said, ‘You guys don’t really know what you’re doing, do you?’ We looked at each other and replied, ‘Yes, providing mobility for these vets so they can participate in more activities.’ ‘True,’ she said. ‘But what you’re really doing is giving them their lives back.’”
More than 150 veterans have received power wheelchairs from VMC. The organization relies entirely on donations. You can support the program on Chapter 972’s website or by calling 208-541-4809.
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