What was once trash is now a nation’s treasure

Phil Smith, Rotary District 7280 chairman of Crutches 4 Africa, is shown with some of the mobility devices, such as canes, crutches, walkers and even wheelchairs, that are stored at three locations in Smethport and are to be shipped to Uganda on Aug. 3.

SMETHPORT — In our throw-away culture, many pre-owned, but still highly usable mobility devices, such as canes, crutches, walkers and even wheelchairs are often sent to landfills where they occupy valuable space.

In other cases, these devices can be found in basements, closets and garages.

Crutches 4 Africa has found new homes for this equipment, also known as assistive devices.

Since 2005, C4A has been collecting new and used mobility devices to be sent to Africa and other developing countries where they are distributed free of charge to victims of polio, war, birth defects and accidents regardless of age, gender, race or tribe. Many of the neediest people live in remote villages.

Locally, Rotary International District 7028 has been collecting the devices for more than a year and a-half. Collection barrels are located at Costa’s Supermarket in Smethport, Tops Markets in Bradford and Olean, N.Y., and Reid’s Food Barn, also in Olean.

Smethport resident Phil Smith, a member of the Keystone Rotary E-Club, is chairman of the project for Rotary District 7280, a large geographic area that stretches from McKean County west to Erie and south to Cranberry Township and includes 44 clubs.

David Talbot, a Colorado Rotarian, founded C4A.

While he lived in Colorado, Smith met Talbot at a Rotary International District Conference when he spoke about C4A shortly after he initiated the project.

“Dave was about five years old when he contracted polio and suffered with its effects,” Smith said, “but he sort of outgrew the disease and was able to participate in high school athletics. Later in life, though, Dave had to deal with post-polio syndrome — he didn’t have the disease, but still had some of the effects.”

And yet, while coping with the symptoms — he walks with metal crutches with the upper arm supports — Talbot nevertheless maintains an active lifestyle.

For instance, when Talbot was a professional photographer on an assignment in Uganda, he witnessed the devastating impact that polio has on the survivors of this terrible disease that left many unable to walk on their own. These and many others throughout Africa and some developing countries actually crawl, known as “crawlers,” dragging their crippled legs behind them. Sometimes, lucky ones use tree limbs as makeshift crutches or are even transported in wheelbarrows.

On one occasion, Talbot saw a woman whose right leg was up behind her neck with her foot on her shoulder.

Unfortunately, polio still exists, albeit in just several countries, such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the polio virus can be found in the sanitation systems and spreads from there.

In 1985, Rotary International launched PolioPlus, the first and largest internationally-organized private sector support of a public health program. Three years later, RI, along with the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, continued the fight to reduce polio cases by 99.9 percent.

Nonetheless, the anti-polio campaign continues, often confronting different cultures and local beliefs. According to Smith, “Some governments oppose outsiders trying to help by using proven medicine. Then, there are false claims that the polio vaccine makes children sterile.”

A nation is considered “polio-free” as long as no cases have been reported within three years. At one time, India and Nigeria were among the four remaining countries where polio still posed a serious health problem. India has since been cleared from the list. Nigeria has been cleared twice.

Two years ago at the Rotary International Convention in Atlanta, Ga., Bill Gates pledged $240 million to assist in eradicating polio.

Talbot’s experiences while he was in Africa were so powerful that, upon his return home, initiated C4A, a non-profit 501©3 organization through the Evergreen, Colo., Rotary Club, where he is still a member. Since its beginning, C4A has distributed more than 125,000 mobility devices to 16 African countries and ten other developing countries.

Speaking about the task facing C4A, Talbot said, “There are many people living in Africa who could use a crutch or walker or wheelchair, and they’ll never see it in their lifetime because the need is so great.”

After hearing Talbot’s presentation about C4A. Smith told Talbot, “I work in a hospital and see these devices going into compactors and Dumpsters every day. I can collect them for you.”

Smith followed through with his offer.

After relocating to Smethport, Smith lost contact with Talbot for a time.

They renewed their acquaintance two years later at the Rotary International Convention in Atlanta, where Smith introduced District 7280 Governor Judith Hughes to Talbot. As Hughes learned more about Crutches 4 Africa, she remarked to Smith, “You’ve got to take this on for the district, and you can be chairman.”

Last year, Smith introduced Tom Grant, District 7280 chairman of Shelter Box, to Talbot. Like Talbot, Grant is also a polio survivor, and uses the same type of metal crutches as Talbot, and the two became close friends.

Recently, Smith read a news item in The Era about an Erie organization, Chosen International Medical Assistance. Thinking this organization could be helpful to C4A, Smith said, “I called the listed number and spoke to the man whose name was also found in the article and explained our project to him,” Smith said.

“Yeah, we may have a few things you can have,” Mazza replied.

“I’ll be in Erie next week,” Smith said.

When Smith arrived at the organization’s building, he was pleasantly surprised by the amount of mobility devices. Smith said, “What he called ‘a few things’ turned out to be eight Gaylord containers, the huge cardboard boxes that hold watermelons and pumpkins in grocery stores — and they were absolutely filled.”

Smith, who had driven his minivan that day, said, “I can’t take these now.”

Back in Smethport, Smith was talking about this situation with a friend, John Buchholz, owner of Lakeside Garage, when Buchholz remarked, “When do you want to go get them? I have a truck and trailer.”

“Great! Fantastic!” Smith exclaimed.

This was the first of three trips to the same Erie location. Since then Smith and his son, Todd, made a trip for an additional eight Gaylord containers full of devices. Later, Smith borrowed his son’s truck and trailer and drove alone that time, picking up nine more Gaylord containers.

And then last week, Smith picked up additional devices in Warren.

Right now, these collections have brought in enough devices to fill one sea shipping container that is 40 feet long, eight feet high and eight feet wide, plus two-thirds of a second container. The devices are stored at three locations in Smethport until Aug. 3 when they are slated to be shipped to Uganda, via a New Jersey seaport.

Talbot and Grant will be in Smethport when the devices are shipped, a voyage that costs between $7,000 and $10,000.

An official count of the devices is recorded at the docks at departure and checked again when they arrive at their destination.

C4A has been growing in the U.S., especially in populous areas. For example, within the last four-to-six weeks, a shipping container full of the devices left Phoenix, Ariz. More recently, another container full, collected by the Webster, N.Y., Rotarians left for Mozambique.

Since the number of devices collected in low populated areas has dwindled in some cases, Rotarians are accepting monetary donations, as well as devices.

At Talbot’s request, Smith has become an C4A international representative in New Zealand, where he and his wife, Karen, spend part of the year.