On a Roll

On a Roll

Byline: PAULA PATCH

Mobility gives something that most people take for granted: the ability to live life with dignity and independence. In an ideal world, that’s a gift no one should go without.

That’s the concept, and the goal, at Alternatives in Motion, which calls itself “an alternative to traditional and often limiting methods for people with disabilities to obtain mobility.”

Located in Grand Rapids, Mich., the non-profit organization’s mission is to provide wheelchairs to people who can’t afford them and who don’t qualify for any other financial assistance. Alternatives in Motion presents these individuals with new, custom wheelchairs bought with dollars earned through various fund-raising efforts and private donations.

The organization is the brainchild of motivational speaker Johnnie Tuitel, who has cerebral palsy, and Grand Rapids businessman and philanthropist George Ranville. Ten years ago, Tuitel underwent an operation to relieve the spasticity in his muscles. At the time, he was the oldest person in the country to undergo the procedure due to the extensive rehab it requires, but “my goal was to be able to clean myself,” Tuitel says.

While he recuperated, Tuitel learned his insurance company had denied his request for a new wheelchair, “which I needed because my new body needed a new chair.” He already had a chair, his insurance company told him, and it was too soon for a replacement. Though Tuitel had the resources to pay for a new wheelchair himself, as he lay in the hospital a thought kept haunting him: What do other people in this situation, who don’t have the resources to get their needed equipment, do?

To help solve the problem, Tuitel and Ranville founded Alternatives in Motion in 1995. Working with local foundations for people with disabilities, the team estimated that there were roughly 150,000 wheelchair-users in the state of Michigan, though they had no way of finding out how many people were unable to get the mobility equipment they needed.

“We set a goal for the first year of placing 15 chairs, no more, no less,” recalls Tuitel. The organization easily met that first-year goal in 1996.

In 1997, Tuitel and Ranville doubled the number, and in 2000 they placed 108 wheelchairs – donating a total of more than 285 wheelchairs in five years.

Alternatives in Motion was on a roll.

THE PEOPLE

People who need wheelchairs can’t just come to Alternatives in Motion with an old chair and leave with a new one, however. There is a specific – and sometimes long – process involved.

Individuals must have a written prescription for a wheelchair. They also must visit a vendor to be fitted for the equipment and must prove that they do not qualify to receive the wheelchair through any other means. Only then can Alternatives in Motion begin the search for funds to fulfill the request.

So far, most of the wheelchair recipients have been Michigan residents who find out about the organization through local media outlets, schools and fundraising events. However, the organization has a global reach.

Take the case of an African man with a disability who traveled to Michigan in search of a college education. The man asked for help because he needed a wheelchair to get around campus. Alternatives in Motion not only gave him a wheelchair and a scooter but also put him in touch with the president of a local college, where he eventually received his degree.

“In Africa, people with disabilities are considered disposable,” Tuitel explains. “As a result of getting a wheelchair, [this man] became self-reliant, and now he is back in his country working on disability education issues, is married, and is running for parliament.

“This guy was ‘disposable,’ but he got a wheelchair and now is able to do so many other things,” Tuitel continues. “We’re not going to claim credit for that, though; he did it by himself.”

Or, take the case of a Guatemalan girl with spina bifida who first visited Alternatives in Motion in 1995 at the age of two. The custom-fitted wheelchair she got allowed her to advance from crawling to really moving in a matter of weeks. Six years later, the child was back – this time for a new wheelchair to replace the one she had outgrown. The organizaiton has a policy that once it provides a chair, it will purchase another if the equipment is outgrown or breaks down.

The stories of local wheelchair recipients are no less compelling. Alternatives in Motion donated its very first wheelchair to a woman who had been a stabbing victim while she was in college.

Another story starts a few weeks before Christmas one year when Tuitel met a little boy who, he noticed, was seated in an old, ill-fitting manual wheelchair. It turns out the child was already on the waiting list to receive a new wheelchair from Alternatives in Motion. In the holiday spirit, Tuitel blurted out, “You will have a new chair by Christmas.” Almost immediately, he wished he could take the words back, since, even if the money were available to buy a chair, it would take weeks to have the boy fitted and the custom wheelchair delivered.

Tuitel returned to his office in a glum mood, but it soon changed when he received a call from a vendor who had checked out a power wheelchair that someone wanted to donate. Tuitel opened the boy’s file and was elated to find that the specs on the wheelchair matched the boy’s measurements perfectly.

A few days later, Tuitel delivered the chair and kept his promise.

THE PINCH

The stories could go on except for one catch. Like non-profits large and small, local and national, Alternatives in Motion has suffered from the country’s economic downturn. “When the economy went sour in 2001, money stopped coming in,” Tuitel says. “Some of our big corporate backers got hammered in 2002. It was a real tough time. But, the fact is that we’re still here … we still have people calling us who need wheelchairs, and we know that if we don’t help them, no one else will.”

To offset the downturn in monetary donations, the organization is taking in high-quality used equipment and partnering with equipment manufacturers.

“We can utilize good used equipment to help people out in more ways,” Tuitel says. “The problem with wheelchairs is that they’re all fitted, so you have to have a good inventory of [used] chairs to choose from to meet the needs of all the people on the waiting list. We also have to look at a place where we can hold more equipment.”

In the past year, Alternatives in Motion also has begun receiving requests for equipment from outside Michigan, from places like Louisiana, Iowa and Florida, and plans to build on those requests. “What we need to do is have these requests come in from all over the country to prove the [far-reaching] need. Then, we can ask for more contributions,” Ranville says.

THE PURPOSE

Tuitel and Ranville maintain that their mission is unique. “Alternatives in Motion helps every person who needs a wheelchair,” Tuitel says. “We don’t care why you need a chair; we don’t judge people. If you have a disability, we’re going to help you.”

“There are organizations that help local [residents get equipment], but no one is trying to approach the problem in an organized fashion,” Ranville adds. “There are organizations that give wheelchairs to the rest of the world. We need people to know that if they think an organization like ours needs to be around, they need to send data, send money, help do fundraising, so we can grow into a larger national organization. They need to know that we are far more efficient than the government [in providing mobility equipment].”

It seems that the message is beginning to draw response. Last year, Alternatives in Motion received a Quality of Life grant from the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation. The grants are awarded to programs that improve the daily lives of people living with disabilities.

Such recognition is what keeps the wheels spinning at Alternatives in Motion, and reminds Tuitel that the gift of mobility he now gives to others came about because of his own disability.

“My disability is the greatest gift of my life. It really is, and I’m not just saying that to sound cool. I am fulfilling my every dream,” he says.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Visit Alternatives in Motion on the Internet at www.alternativesinmotion.org, or call 877/468-9335. For more information about Johnnie Tuitel’s public speaking or the Gun Lake Adventure book series, visit Tap Shoe Productions at www.tapshoe.com, or call 888/302-7463.

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