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WHEELS Project Partners with Joni and Friends to Help Disabled Children Around the Globe


LeTourneau University Assistant Professor of Biology Karen Rispin and student researchers are embarking on a three-year study known as the WHEELS Project to measure the effectiveness of wheelchairs being used globally by disabled children.

Partnering with Joni and Friends International Disability Center which provides support for disabled people around the globe, Rispin and her students will perform outcome studies on the Regency pediatric wheelchair that Joni and Friends donates to the disabled worldwide. Joni and Friends was founded by Joni Eareckson Tada, an evangelical Christian author, artist, radio host who has lived in a wheelchair for four decades following a diving accident in 1967 that left her paralyzed. She has been a tireless advocate for ministering to the disabled.

Joni and Friends is donating 45 wheelchairs to the Bethany Kids/Joy Town boarding school for disabled children in Thika, Kenya, where Rispin and her students will work this summer. Bethany Kids Relief and Rehabilitation International makes a difference to disabled children largely through surgical intervention, however they have recently taken on the administration of Joy Town Special Primary School for Disabled Children. Joni and Friends are donating 20 new Regency adjustable pediatric wheelchairs and 25 refurbished pediatric wheelchairs, children's books and other rehabilitation gear to Joy Town.

"We at Joni and Friends are excited about this project," said Steve Bundy, managing director of international outreach at Joni and Friends International Disability Center. Bethany Kids Director Dr. Dick Bransford is also enthusiastic about the project. "Many children at Joy Town could be much, much more mobile if their wheelchairs were appropriate in size for their little bodies," he said.

Rispin and her students have been raising funds to pay for the shipping of the donated chairs to Joy Town since February.

"We want to serve God by enabling the disabled and those who serve them around the world," Rispin said. "Our goal is to develop and deploy a suite of outcomes measures that give quantifiable data on the effective function of Joni and Friends' Regency pediatric wheelchairs. We will do research comparing the Regency chair to a first-world pediatric chair to confirm that it is equally functional, by measuring energy cost, maneuverability, and psycho-social parameters that relate to how the children feel about the wheelchairs."

"Joni and Friends has had a global ministry to disabled people for many years," Rispin said. " They reach out with God's love to disabled people in whatever way they can, including refurbishing donated wheelchairs and distributing them around the world in their Wheels for the World ministry. These distributions did not have sufficient pediatric wheelchairs, so Joni and Friends began to build these Regency pediatric chairs to meet that need."

Two Longview-area AMBUCS clubs have donated $4,500 for the shipping of the chairs from the U.S. to the port of Mombasa. The WHEELS project is still raising funds to ship the chairs from Mombasa to the children at Joy Town.

This semester, Rispin and students Rachel Follingstad (junior kinesiology major from Duncanville, Texas) and Elizabeth Richardson (freshman biology major from Anchorage, Alaska), have made preliminary rough drafts of all outcomes measures, working with Longview-area pediatric physical therapist Sue Hayward. The students have worked with Hayward to become familiar with fitting children to pediatric wheelchairs.

Children at Christian Heritage School in Longview are assisting the WHEELS Program by volunteering to help with outcomes assessments. By practicing with able-bodied children here in Longview, the LETU students will be better prepared to make assessments in Kenya with the children there.

This summer, Rispin and her students plan to travel to Poland with Joni and Friends on a " Wheels for the World" outreach to become familiar with their philosophy and wheelchair distribution protocols. Then they will travel to Joy Town in Kenya to interact with professionals there regarding outcomes measures that would help those professionals serve the children at Joy Town more effectively. They will also distribute the donated wheelchairs and make initial assessments. Their plan is to return the next summer to continue their work and research.

Next fall, the WHEELS Project plans to continue the work to refine the outcomes measures based on what they learned in Kenya and Poland. They will continue to do a study with able-bodied children at Christian Heritage School in Longview to compare the Regency pediatric chair with a locally available North American pediatric chair to confirm that the Regency pediatric chair works as well.

Summer 2011, the WHEELS project will return to Kenya for a month to take a full set of updated outcomes measures with all children using the Regency chair. They will also record the maintenance records of the Regency chairs.

"We will come back and crunch data, then refine the protocols again, because research is called 're-search' because you have to redo and reevaluate and is by nature a learning process," Rispin said. "We also hope to facilitate and raise funding for an additional shipment of more chairs to the Joy Town boarding school, where more than 300 disabled children live. The chairs are donated, but they need financial support to get them shipped to the children in need."

Tax deductible gifts can be sent to LeTourneau University for the WHEELS Rehabilitation Outcomes program at P. O. Box 7333, Longview, Texas, 75607 or by calling the LETU Development office at (903) 233-3810.

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