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Nine years later, LDS Charities wheelchair still keeps man mobile in India village

RAIRAOPET, Bibinagar District, India — His head was turned as he stepped into the elevator shaft and fell.

The plunge broke the farmer's back and stilled his legs.

So when guests arrive on this overcast, monsoon-season afternoon, Arangola Dayanand sits on the floor in his doorway to greet them. The humidity shows in his white T-shirt as the 42-year-old father presses his hands on the floor and lifts himself backward, feet last, over the threshold and down onto the first step.

Meanwhile, a friend disappears around the side of the house and pulls the cover off what looks half like a wheelchair and half like a hand-powered bike.

"When I first saw it, I wondered if I could really use it,” Dayanand says. “Once they showed me how it worked, I knew I could."

That was 2008. That year, LDS Charities provided wheelchairs to Dayanand and more than 500 others in India.

Built to last

The rugged, dirt roads of villages in developing countries like India batter wheelchairs. The designer of this one would be proud. Dayanand has replaced the tires because of regular wear and tear. Otherwise, his wheelchair has lasted nearly a decade without incident.

LDS Charities has placed more than 11,200 wheelchairs in India since 2003.

An estimated 6 million to 12 million people in India need wheelchairs. Unfortunately, they face deep misunderstandings about what a functional, permanent wheelchair is, said Vinod Krishnan, 37, the South Asia regional director of Motivation India, one of LDS Charities' partners in a nation of 1.32 billion people.

"We’re trying to change the way wheelchairs are provided in India," he said. "People don’t understand the difference between a temporary wheelchair used to leave a hospital and a permanent wheelchair. Motivation India has been lobbying hard to change and professionalize wheelchairs in low-income countries."

A poorly made wheelchair doesn’t last. A poor fit in a wheelchair limits what a user can do with it.

"The LDS Charities wheelchair initiative provides opportunities for people to improve their life by enhancing their mobility through an appropriate wheelchair that has been selected and fit for them," Eric Wunderlich, manager of the LDS Charities’ wheelchair initiative. "The appropriate wheelchair allows for the person to become increasingly self-reliant. They can now go to school, to work, participate in more family events and more."

Dayanand was homebound, unable to work, for the first four years after his fall. Once he had his wheelchair, he was able to hold down a job as a local farming supervisor for several years.

"Many can get odd jobs and earn $50-$100 a month," Krishnan said. "It’s very, very gratifying for them to go from being dependent on somebody to being more independent."

Why wheelchairs?

It’s late afternoon now, 4 p.m. Time for children to return to the village from school. A yellow school bus makes an unscheduled stop within sight of Dayanand's house because a parked car is blocking the road. The bus driver leans on his horn. One long blare. A second. A third.

Dayanand’s friend doesn't notice. He picks up a plank and bridges it across the space from the step to the seat of the wheelchair. Dayanand adjusts the knot at the front of his sand-colored, traditional, loose-fitting dhoti pants. Then he pulls his arms in close to his body again and lifts himself onto the board. Impatient on account of his waiting guests, he both scoots himself across the board toward the seat while his friend and his daughter, 18-year-old Maheshwari, simultaneously lift him to speed the process.

Once in place, he again adjusts the dhoti pants, pulling up the red hem with the gold pattern to make room to lift his feet, one by one, into place.

Wheelchairs like this one are a priority for LDS Charities because they neatly fit the three guiding principles of the charity arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — care for those in greatest need, promote volunteerism and inspire self-reliance.

The initiative has expanded rapidly. LDS Charities has given wheelchairs to people in 133 countries since 2001. In 2016 alone, LDS Charities provided 55,500 wheelchairs across 48 countries.

Mobility's power

Krishnan has seen the impact of a wheelchair first hand on Motivation India’s own staff. Dwarfism and osteoporosis had debilitated one woman in her late 20s, leaving her nearly bedridden.

When she got her wheelchair, she was able to begin to sit properly, Krishnan said, and become more mobile. Despite a lack of schooling, she landed a job with Motivation India in its Sri Lanka office.

"She’s a clever, dynamic person," Krishnan said. "With training, she became a key member of the Motivation staff."

Today, she is the group's project roles administrator.

"The mobility of a wheelchair motivated the entire process that has given her a new life," Krishnan said.

Both stories match the mission statement of the LDS Charities wheelchair initiative: "Improve mobility, health and the education and economic opportunities for people with physical disabilities."

2 kilometers

Settled in his chair, with a pink button-down shirt now over his T-shirt, Dayanand is ready to talk to his guests.

After his fall down the elevator shaft in 2004, he says, all he could do was sit at home. He was on multiple medications, gained weight and lost muscle.

"It was very unhealthy for me to sit around," he said. "I became mobile again when I got this, and I can travel two kilometers each day. I feel much better. I’m able to see my friends and mingle. I feel happier. It’s like an exercise for me and helps me stay healthier."

In fact, Dayanand said he no longer needs any shots.

Most of the wheelchairs LDS Charities provides are paid for by thousands of small donations made to the LDS Church’s humanitarian fund. Large donors provide money through LDS Philanthropies.

One hundred percent of donations go directly to projects. Other church funds pay for salaries, office expenses and other costs.

New shipment

LDS Charities ensures long-term mobility for wheelchair recipients through partners who train and provide tools to local groups for repair and maintenance.

"A long-term goal is that the training and support LDS Charities provides to a local partner will enable them to provide quality wheelchairs and services to people in their community long after our work together," said Wunderlich, the initiative manager.

Motivation India is a national partner in India. It has a large network, with 20 local wheelchair partners and 82 outreach partners, Krishnan said.

He is prepared to activate the network again. Ten containers with about 3,000 wheelchairs built in a factory in China recently arrived at the southern port city of Chennai on India’s east coast, he said.

Giving back

Dayanand knew nothing of LDS Charities or Motivation India after his accident, but another man who had grown up in the small village soon would.

By 2007, Sudhakar Yarkala was a local village boy made good. He built a Honda dealership where he sells the motorcycles and scooters that are everywhere on India’s roads. Today he is an active philanthropist who returns frequently to Rairaopet to identify needs and give back to his village and others in his home district.

He recently paid for young trees out of his own pocket and had them planted along roads next to many of the village's homes.

He has found he can do more by partnering with LDS Charities on projects. When Yarkala noticed a need for wheelchairs in the Bibinagar District, he approached local LDS missionaries working as volunteers on the project.

"Can the church help provide wheelchairs?" he asked.

LDS Charities provided eight wheelchairs to the district through Yarkala in 2008. One went to Dayanand.

Most of the time, he powers the wheelchair by turning the crank near the handlebars with his hands.

“It’s pretty easy to use by hand,” he said this week. “When I go uphill, I grip the wheels like a normal wheelchair and turn them with my hands.”

Dayanand has begun to think about finding additional help. He says he is interested in an artificial foot or leg or back braces that could help him to stand.

But he is grateful for what the wheelchair has done for him. And how long it has lasted.

“I feel much better,” he said, “because I can move around.”

To learn more about LDS Charities, visit ldscharities.org or the LDS Charities Facebook page.