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Story Publication logo November 16, 2010

Guatemala: The Culture that Crawls - Struggles and Solutions


Image by Alex Rozier, Guatemala, 2010.

More than 20 million people worldwide are effectively immobile. One Mid-Missouri group is working to...

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Editor's Note, Christina Paschyn: Alex Rozier, one of five grand prize winners of the 2010 Pulitzer Center-sponsored YouTube Project: Report competition, has launched his reporting project, Guatemala: The Culture that Crawls. The project explores the plight of the immobile in the country who have crawled on the ground their whole lives and some who have never left the front steps of their own home. Rozier and his reporting team - Sarah Hill and Scott Schaefer of KOMU-TV - will report on how Mel West from Columbia, Missouri is helping to improve the lives of Guatemala's disabled by building and providing for them Personal Energy Transportation Devices (PETs). With the help of friends across America, he has mobilized more than 24,000 people in 84 countries worldwide.

In the following post, Rozier and his team profile two individuals who are working to improve mobility worldwide, and two men who have struggled with disability in Guatemala. View these and more profiles and videos at the website, The Culture that Crawls.

Dick Rutgers

Eleven years ago Dick Rutgers went to Guatemala on a week and a half wheelchair distribution and mission trip. To this day, he's never left.

He spends most of his days educating youth throughout Guatemala, now sponsoring the schooling of more than 70 kids. In his free time, he builds wheelchairs for people in the country. When his workday is done, he heads home, where he finds 12 to 15 kids waiting for dinner every single night.

Whether helping a disabled child or finding a school for someone who's never received an education, for Dick Rutgers there really is no normal day. On September 13th he came across a malnourished 6-year-old at a wheelchair distribution named Jessica. He had to tell her mother that he needed to take her to get her well.

"I'm very, very grateful because her mama, when I told her about it, she said let's go. She was willing to go," Rutgers said.

But this feeling devastates Rutgers. "I can't describe it," Rutgers said, "I broke, like I do with everyone of these kids. You let it break your heart, you shed a few tears, then you get back to work, and you do something about it."

And for Rutgers, that's a battle that never ends. "There are so many starving kids, there are so many families without homes, so terribly many," Rutgers said. "Yeah, we can't reach them all. I mean, here too. I'll take her in and I'll probably pass 100 homes on the way where there are other starving kids, just going to take her home. But we can help that one, so that's what we're trying to do."

Mark Richard

"What I've been doing for the past 20 years is collect wheelchairs, refurbish them and bring them worldwide," Mark Richard, Director of Operations for Hope Haven International, said. This type of work, he says, fulfills him.

"When I started coming to do volunteer work in Guatemala 30 years ago and saw people crawling around, it just tore my heart out," Richard said. "At one point we said we wanted to start bringing wheelchairs down, well, at least one wheelchair for a neighbor lady, and we ended up bring 20 wheelchairs and that was kind of the beginning."

Richard now runs a wheelchair factory through Hope Haven Guatemala, a non-governmental organization. The workers at the factory are all disabled themselves.

"To not only be able to provide mobility, but to take it to the next level and provide employment in unbelievable," Richard said.

"There are thousands and thousands of children that need mobility," Richard said. "It's tragic, but true."

Richard says a lot of them are hidden away, and many people have neighbors right next to them they've never met because they've never been able to leave their house. Richard hopes everyone considers donating, volunteering, or collecting wheelchairs to be refurbished and shipped worldwide. "We like to say you're not sponsoring a wheelchair, you're sponsoring that child or that adult to change their life," Richard says.

Oscar Costillo

All it took was one day for Oscar Costillo's life to change forever. He was climbing a cocunut tree, when he fell more than 70 feet to the ground. Costillo was 48 years old at the time. The next five years of his life he spent in his bed.

"I felt so sad, because I don't feel any joy because I wanted to go out to the streets and everything, but it's impossible for me," Costillo said.

Costillo now has a P.E.T. but remains unemployed. He's had a P.E.T. for three years and was one of the first people in his area to receive one.

Without it, "I think I already am dead, because in bed I got injuries to my back," Costillo said.

Sabino Lopez

Sabino Lopez starts his workday at 8 a.m. every morning transporting medicine and people all day until 6 p.m. He serves as a driver for a health care clinic, but like everything else in his life, he does it all with only one leg.

Doctors diagnosed Lopez with Gangrene – a disease that arises when a large amount of body tissue dies — and it moved fast through his body, resulting in the amputation of his leg. A few years back, he received a P.E.T. or a Personal Energy Transportation device. If you ask him, he'll tell you he believes it has given him his life back.

"I work without any difficulty and my bosses say it's amazing that I've continued working like a normal person," Lopez said.

After he received his amputation, he started to think that his family might reject him. Lopez has had his P.E.T. for a year, but went without mobility for a month and a half.

When asked how he would manage without his P.E.T. his answer was simple: "The day I don't have my P.E.T. anymore…I want to die."

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