- Associated Press - Sunday, September 24, 2017

PENDLETON, Ind. (AP) - On every wheelchair he rebuilds, Richard Hawkins writes his name on a sticker, puts it on the appliance and takes a moment to reflect.

The tag is small - about 2 inches square - but its significance is huge.

That simple tag is a seal of honor, of faith and of remembrance.

Before they died, both his grandmothers were confined to wheelchairs much like the ones Hawkins now rebuilds.

“When I look at this chair think of my grandmothers,” said Hawkins, an inmate at the Correctional Industrial Facility in Pendleton.

He will never know who, a child or adult, will be fitted with one of his chairs, their language or life circumstances. But he is acutely aware of how their life will be changed.

Hawkins is also keenly aware of how the job of rebuilding wheelchairs may change his own life.

The 33-year-old Lafayette man was sentenced to 34 years in prison in November 2012 after he was convicted of Class A felony dealing cocaine, a narcotic or methamphetamine, and Class A felony possession of cocaine.

Hawkins says he’s not bitter about the sentence. “I made my mistakes and I own it.”

He’s been working in the Wheels for the World program for about a year, and plans on completing an apprenticeship he’ll be able to translate in a sustainable job after his release from prison. He also plans on seeking a sentence modification once he’s finished the apprenticeship program.

Wheels for the world is operated by Joni and Friends, an evangelical Christian organization based in Agorura Hills, California.

A volunteer network collects and stores used wheelchairs, which are then transported to prison-based restoration centers across the country, where they are restored to like-new condition, according to public relations material from the organization.

Once refurbished, the wheelchairs are shipped to countries like India, Haiti, Ghana, Thailand and El Salvador.

Volunteer teams fit each chair to a recipient and instruct them about how to use and maintain the appliance. Recipients also receive a Bible in their native language and the Gospel message of Jesus Christ.

In July, CIF shipped 220 refurbished wheelchairs to El Salvador, which also marked an important milestone. Liability issues prevent the refurbished wheel chairs from being distributed in the U.S., prison officials said.

“Since we first opened our shop in August 2013, we have proudly shipped over 2,500 wheelchairs to impoverished countries around the world,” said CIF warden Wendy Knight at the time.

“These chairs give freedom and mobility to individuals who have been mostly isolated from the outside world for years,” she added.

On average, CIF refurbishes 55 wheelchairs a month, exceeding the original goal of 20 to 30 per month.

Dave Tesdal, program coordinator for Wheels for the World, said the usual team consists of six or inmates who complete their tasks at highly organized work stations.

“The wheelchairs arrive in all kinds of shape and we strip them down to the last nut and bolt,” Tesdal said.

Team members rebuild all varieties of wheelchairs including sport, regular, pediatric, and special needs models. Wheelchairs that can’t be rebuilt are stripped for parts.

The workers are chosen based upon their attitude, passion and mechanical ability, Tesdal said.

All the work to rebuild the chairs occurs at CIF. If new upholstery is required, it’s sent next door to CIF’s upholstery shop where any necessary repairs are made.

John Kozik, foreman of the upholstery shop, said the goal for programs like the upholstery wheelchair shops is to prepare inmates for life after prison.

“We give them every tool they need to survive out there,” he said.

Back in the wheelchair shop, a sport model wheelchair is on a round table about 2 feet tall, reminiscent of an old-time car show where the newest luxury model slowly turns on a platform.

This is Mark Rowe’s domain. He’s in charge of quality control.

With a background in assembly, every wheelchair that goes out the door must pass his critical inspection.

Like Hawkins, the 59-year-old was sentenced to 30 years on drug charges.

He said he’s due to be released in four months and wants to make sure “these younger guys” know their tasks. He admits releasing a chair for distribution is satisfying.

“When you put your name on the side of a wheelchair it gives you a little sense of pride,” he said.”

Rowe has earned his apprenticeship certificate and upon his release, plans to head to Elkhart County in northern Indiana in hopes of finding a job in the recreational vehicle industry.


Source: The (Anderson) Herald Bulletin


Information from: The Herald Bulletin, https://www.theheraldbulletin.com

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