EAST ROCHESTER — Terry Demar said she will never forget the 13-year-old boy whose life was changed by a motorized wheelchair he received while she was volunteering in Chimaltenango, Guatemala.
Demar said the boy — who appeared to be only 5 years old — had probably been carried by family members his whole life. And the family had likely been working for some time to save money to travel to the United States to find him any kind of wheelchair. A motorized wheelchair with a seat insert — and the independence that came with it — was beyond their wildest dreams, she added.
“It was just great,” Demar said. “We realized the child would never get bigger,” because he had already reached adolescence. “It was the perfect chair, perfect for him. He would never have to worry about size.”
Demar, a manager at Heritage Christian Services’ Day Habilitation program in Webster, was among a group of eight volunteers from Heritage who traveled to Chimaltenango in November 2005 as part of a three-week annual retreat that the organization conducts for disabled Guatemalan residents and their caregivers. She will return to Guatemala this year along with Lida Merrill, director of spiritual care for Heritage Christian Services, who is going for the first time.
The two women recently spoke about the retreat at A Second Thought, a consignment shop in Piano Works Mall on West Commercial Street. All the proceeds from the store are used for the ministry in Guatemala — including housing, food, transportation and travel expenses for the retreat, which takes place at the Guatemala Seminary in Chimaltenango. Donations also are accepted, Merrill said.
Organization officials said transportation to Guatemala and other expenses cost about $1,000 per volunteer. Demar added that Heritage staff members who make the trip also donate $200 each to help with the travel costs.
The ministry, which began in 2001, is designed to provide activities for the “campers” — as the Guatemalans who come to participate in these activities during the retreat are called — and to supply them with wheelchairs that have been donated and refurbished for their use. Once a wheelchair is matched with someone, it is then fitted to that person, Merrill said.
“A generic chair can cause more harm than good,” she said, adding that an improper fit could lead to more physical pain. “Some of the physical needs are extensive,” she said.
Based in the Rochesters suburb of East Rochester,Heritage Christian Services is a non-profit agency serving more than 1,000 men, women and children with such developmental disabilities as mental retardation, cerebral palsy, autism and Down syndrome. It operates group homes, day programs and community services for those it serves. Many of the people in agency’s Day Habilitation program make lap blankets and wheelchair covers for the Guatemalan campers, said Jillian Carter, Heritage’s communications and events coordinator.
Merrill said that Heritage’s international ministry began through its Iowa-based sister organization, Hope Haven, an affiliate of the Council of Reformed Charities. Hope Haven has been providing refurbished wheelchairs to people all over the world since 1993. Heritage leaders at the time of initial planning for the store wanted to extend the scope of the organization’s work beyond Rochester, and working with Hope Haven — which maintains an international database of disabled people who need wheelchairs — seemed like the perfect fit, Merrill added.
“Truly, God was in all the right spots to make this all come true,” Demar said.
Wheelchairs donated locally are stored at Piano Works Mall until there are enough to fill a semi-tractor trailer, Merrill explained, then are sent to Iowa, where prisoners from a maximum-security facility do the repair work on them.
Brainstorming efforts led to the establishment of A Second Thought, which was named through an employee contest. The store, which is open six days a week, offers clothing, books, and baby and household items. Two paid employees and 13 volunteers help operate the store.
Merrill said that he retreat also provides opportunities for respite to the caregivers of the campers, who attend for one-week sessions. During the week they live at the retreat, campers receive all the care they need — including medical care, meals and laundry services — from the volunteers, according to Carter. Volunteers also perform skits in the evenings after dinner, Demar noted, and missionaries help volunteers with translations.
“Everybody giving and trying to help each other fit in is another blessing,” Demar remarked.
Each week of the retreat program focuses on a different age group — teenagers, children and adults — and volunteers rotate in and out on weekends. In addition to working at the retreat, volunteers travel on their days off to help out at an orphanage in Antigua that is understaffed, with sometimes one worker per 40 children.
Merrill said that the volunteers have built up such a good rapport with the orphanage residents that some of the children have attended the retreat.
“Sometimes, it’s their only chance to leave the orphanage,” she added.
The retreat program also includes campers with field trips to national landmarks. At times this provides a challenge to everyone involved, Demar explained, because most sites do not have wheelchair access ramps and it’s hard to maneuver the chairs on the many cobblestone streets. During the retreat, temporary ramps are put in place every year at the site, she added.
More than 40 Guatemalans sign up annually for the retreat, thanks to missionaries who travel throughout the area to register campers. Offering the retreat to them is no easy task, Merrill noted, because it involves going door to door in areas where roads are often washed away. The retreat is offered at no cost to the Guatemalans, she added, and Heritage also tries to find individuals who are willing to sponsor campers at a cost of $50 each.
Dick Rutgers, a Seattle native and a missionary in Guatemala who works with the Heritage ministry, said he could write a novel about all the good works that have come out of the camp and Heritage’s support.
“As far as those that come down and help from Heritage, I can’t say enough good about them,” he said. “I have never met a group of people that have so much love for the campers and show such a servant attitude as the Heritage group.”
Rutgers said that he keeps a journal to let people read for themselves about the journey to register campers and the retreat itself.
Here is part of his entry from Sept. 10: “Just before I left for Mazatenango last Thursday I had grounded Byron from his new power chair because he had run into David’s chair the day before. I guess that after an entire life of having everyone else push him around it is a bit hard not to try and push others around a bit. We had a good talk though and he has promised to be on his best behavior. He was extremely happy and very careful with his driving when I put him back into his power chair today.”
Stories like these make it worth being a volunteer at A Second Thought, said Dawn Acquaviva
“I think it’s fabulous,” Acquaviva said about the ministry. “A couple of the gals that have gone have brought in photo albums. … It’s incredible what they do — so labor intensive and one on one.”
Acquaviva, of Penfield, heard about A Second Thought from an advertisement. After coming to check it out, the retiree decided it offered a good community-service opportunity for her. For two years, she has come in every Tuesday to help sort clothing and now also takes inventory of the donations.
“It’s a wonderful organization,” Acquaviva said. “They value their volunteers.”
Russell and Sharon Musson of Macedon, Wayne County, discovered the shop after their daughter opened a nearby salon called Slickers. They are now regulars, both donating and buying books and sometimes buying clothing for their grandchildren.
“They’re friendly, and it goes to such a good cause to try and help people … less fortunate,” Russell Musson said. “It’s one nice shop, and they do a super job. They should be commended.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: To sponsor a camper, contact Heritage Christian Services at 585/340-2000. A Second Thought’s hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday; and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.