The circle of life is more than a song

Pastor Greg
On Religion

Those who know me well know I love to stand words on their heads. A perfect bumper sticker for my car would be “Puns are Fun!” My most recent play on words has to do with a soft drink and a hard place to live.

We all know that a cola is a beverage that refreshes. Akola, India, is a community in need of refreshment. In that impoverished industrialized city about the size of Seattle, severely handicapped individuals struggle to get around without the aid of a wheelchair.

Twenty-three local Rotarians traveled to Akola last month to offer the refreshment of friendship and to assemble and distribute lightweight wheelchairs provided by the Mercer Island Rotary Club. I smile just thinking about how the wheelchair mission to Akola came about.

Twenty-five years ago, Don Schoendorfer traveled with his wife in Morocco. This mechanical engineer from southern California saw people with gnarled limbs crawling on the ground. Returning to his comfortable life in Orange County, he couldn’t forget what he had seen. Over the years, the images haunted him. In his spare time, he designed an experimental wheelchair in his garage.

Using resin patio chairs and mountain bike tires, he created a unique chair that could be assembled and shipped to third-world countries for less than 50 dollars per chair. Within a year, he quit his job, liquidated his savings and started a non-profit organization with a goal to give away wheelchairs to 20 million handicapped people in developing nations. Today, Free Wheelchair Mission has served the needy in nearly 100 countries.

I met Don Schoendorfer three years ago when our family was preparing to move here from Chicago. Upon arriving, I challenged my new congregation to send chairs to the tsunami region of South Asia. Our church responded enthusiastically.

A year later, Schoendorfer visited Mercer Island. My colleagues in the Mercer Island Clergy Association had their interest piqued. More than a thousand wheelchairs were purchased to be distributed in war-ravaged Lebanon. The word spread. Members of Mercer Island Rotary who attend area congregations heard about it. Since this humanitarian effort resonated with Rotary’s mission, they wanted to get involved. As a result, local Rotarians raised enough money (with matching grants) for an additional 1,100 wheelchairs.

But that wasn’t the end of it. Contacts with a Rotary club in Akola were made. The idea of a friendship trip was proposed. Twenty-three members offered to pay their own way and spend 18 days in India to live in the homes of fellow Rotarians. In addition to viewing earth dams and visiting local schools, the highlight of the trip was to distribute wheelchairs.

I’m still smiling as I think of how one thing led to another. The wheels on lightweight inexpensive chairs that are now turning in India are the result of a wheel of creativity turning in the head of an engineer. He in turn got the wheels of mission moving among local churches on our Island. From there, Rotary got involved. And the interconnecting wheels continued to turn like gears.

If you know much about Rotary, you know that the logo of Rotary International is a wheel. Given the service club’s name, you’d expect as much. But upon closer investigation, the Rotary logo is more than a circle or a wheel. It’s a wheel with cogs all around the rim. Rotary’s logo is a gear ready to engage another gear. That’s very appropriate.

Rotary is at its best when it interacts with other humanitarian projects around the nation and the world. I like to think of it as the circle of life. A circle that turns in such a way that lame people find mobility. Malnourished people are fed. Illiterate kids are educated. Unlike the memorable song in “The Lion King,” the circle of life gears up to find needs and fill them. It’s a circle that rings our planet with tangible help and hope. When that circle of life turns, good things happen in people’s lives across the street and around the world.

Pastor Greg Asimakoupoulos is the head of the Mercer Island Covenant Church and a regular contributor to the Reporter.

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