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How Free Wheelchair Mission Transforms Lives Through the Gift of Mobility

During an emotionally charged 30-minute session at 20/21 Vision: The Innovation Summit, Brad Cooper, Head of Marketing at Free Wheelchair Mission s...

“It’s almost as if the entire population of Germany had no mobility, so imagine that for a second…That’s how big the problem is…Or the entire country of Thailand, or all the countries in the United Kingdom,” explained Brad Cooper.

Statistically speaking, there are 75 million people living with disabilities worldwide who need a wheelchair.

During an emotionally charged 30-minute session at 20/21 Vision: The Innovation Summit, Brad Cooper, Head of Marketing at Free Wheelchair Mission shared the nonprofit organization’s inspiring, innovative three-pronged approach to solving this drastic global problem.

As a humanitarian, faith-based organization that has designed and distributed cost-efficient, durable wheelchairs for individuals living with disabilities in over 94 developing countries, they have endless transformative stories to tell.

The stories they capture and share are life-changing in a multitude of ways—for recipients of wheelchairs, for the staff and volunteers who deliver these gifts and for the readers of these stories, but none of this would be possible without the mutually shared passion and collaboration of Free Wheelchair Mission‘s internal and external team members and partners.

Trust us, this session is a must-watch masterclass in brand storytelling.

Watch it here:

Dive in to our session takeaways below to learn how compassion drives innovation of product design, intentional partnerships and visual storytelling at Free Wheelchair Mission.

Innovative Product Design

Like many stories you’ve heard of, like Google or Apple, starting in a garage with an engineer or engineers, our story is similar,” Brad began as he laid out the blueprint of the founder’s ideation and iteration process for Free Wheelchair Mission’s first wheelchair design.

To back up a bit, what really started this organization was a nagging idea that individuals with physical disabilities and paralysis could enjoy better, more independent lives.

When Don Schoendorfer and his wife took a trip to Morocco over 30 years ago, they saw a woman crawling on the ground; a heartwrenching scene that he describes as the defining moment that drove him to action.

Brad explained, “It really struck Don and his wife and he thought about her over many years…being the MIT-trained, PhD in bio mechanical engineering as he was, he began to research and he discovered that 75 million people worldwide are in need of a wheelchair.

When he found this out, Don went to work putting together a prototype made of mountain bike wheels and a white resin lawn chair which was “durable, long-lasting, comfortable, affordable,” as Brad explained. “Twenty years now on, and we now have multiple versions of the wheelchair.”

From their first prototype (now retired,) to the third model which now collapses for easy transportation, the cost of production has only increased $50 — from $50 a unit to now under $100.

Achieving your dreams on a budget has never seemed so possible — thanks Don!

Purposeful Partnerships

Before any wheelchair models or designs are sent to manufacturers to be produced, Free Wheelchair Mission engineers use a test track located in their California headquarters, which was donated to them by a donor, to test their performance. 

For nonprofits, donors sometimes provide financial support or donate key resources and in this case, the necessary testing device plays a crucial role in ensuring the safety and durability of these life-improving products.

After the wheelchairs have been approved for production another partner moves in. Free Wheelchair Mission’s manufacturers and shipping factory partners in Asia packs and ships 510 wheelchairs per shipping container to Free Wheelchair Mission’s nonprofit partners across 94 countries. To this date they’ve donated 1.3 million wheelchairs worldwide through their partners.

Brad explained in detail how the organization relies on key partners to not only distribute wheelchairs to the global communities they both serve, but to document the stories and train recipients and their families on how to use the wheelchairs as well.

We have partnerships with organizations like Food for the Hungry, Food for the Poor, Metanoia Missions, World Vision…And our partners are our distribution channels… so we train and we quip all these partners who are already on the ground in many of these countries around the world,” he said.

Once they [wheelchairs] get to the ports, they’re all in parts and they assemble them. A lot of times it’s volunteers, it’s the partners themselves and their staff assembling the wheelchairs…Sometimes there are larger distribution groups, sometimes there are smaller distributions of the wheelchairs, in fact during COVID a lot of times they even went door to door to distribute them to make sure things got to recipients safely. In fact, this is a photo of distribution of wheelchairs to recipients in Haiti five days after that devastating earthquake just last month.

Teaching Moments

Many of the on-site partners provide development and relief services like clean water, food, clothing, medical supplies and services, and job training. They’re often not trained photographers or documentarians and Free Wheelchair Mission is not always able to hire their own photographers to travel and document these stories—but they found a way.

The programs team at Free Wheelchair Mission developed a teaching webinar series called ‘The Wheelhouse’ and they’ve held several sessions so far—some in English and some in Spanish—on capturing quality photos that over 150 partner representatives have taken to date.

One of the things our Programs team did to collect storytelling assets from our partners was set up an online submission form system called the Wheelchair Container Report that’s connected to Dropbox,” Brad shared. Two members of the content team then edit, organize and tag the partners content for easy accessibility and usability in all of their marketing materials including event promotion materials, social media, blog and web content, press releases and ultimately fundraising collateral which generate capital for more wheelchairs.

Free Wheelchair Mission also just joined PhotoShelter this summer, so we’re excited to enable this passionate team to share more of these impactful stories. “It’s going to be able to index and archive all of the content that we have and make it more accessible because we’re really scaling through digital,” and we can’t wait to see what’s next.

Transformative Storytelling

More than One Million Lives Transformed

Brad began the session by telling a story about a girl named Flor…

The very first photo I wanted to share is a photo that’s very special to us. In the photo is a girl named Flor and she comes from a very mountainous, remote rural area of Peru…This just tells a lot about our story…you can see Flor, who in the first photo is being carried by her mom. She lives with a disability and she doesn’t have mobility, so her mom was carrying her around pretty much everywhere she needed to go,” Brad explains.

Now, you can see her in this photo sitting in a wheelchair and this is her very first and brand new wheelchair. She’s just so excited; and singing and clapping and her family’s there, her mom’s in the back and her dad. The whole community came around. The other exciting part about this is the gentleman on the left; he’s celebrating as well. That’s our founder, Don Schoendorfer. He’s celebrating because this was Free Wheelchair Mission’s one millionth wheelchair that they were able to deliver and it went to Flor. When this happens it just transforms a person’s life and so now Flor is able to go to school and get around on her own and have independence.

Oftentimes there are travel challenges getting the wheelchair to recipients, so the partners take whatever mode of transportation is available to them to ensure safe delivery to recipients. Whether by boat, by plane, by taxi, by truck, the partners go the distance to deliver the product and share the story because they’ve likely been changed in the process, too.

Brad noted how the power of visual storytelling drives every aspect of Free Wheelchair Mission forward, “All of this is made possible by one thing that everyone on this call is very well aware of and that’s visual storytelling…That’s really what powers all of that transformation you just saw. These stories of transformation, they actually transform in many ways, those who hear and see these stories for the first time…Each time we distribute a wheelchair it’s just so impactful for those that get that privilege and blessing to be able to witness it and see it, whether it’s on video or in person…and because they’re transformed, they want to help us and help us raise money and then there are more wheelchairs distributed and more stories essentially,” Brad said.

This is what we like to call dual transformation where there’s a transformation of the person’s life who is living with disabilities—they just have so many new opportunities, and the people who get to share in that and help make that happen, their lives are very often transformed as well.”

Brad Cooper, Free Wheelchair Mission’s Head of Marketing

Hear more about how Free Wheelchair Mission‘s life-affirming work has reached in to people’s hearts and homes around the globe below — and reach out if you have a brand story to share.

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