January 2007 - A Journey of Hope

In October 2006, members of ERA accompanied the Wheelchair Foundation on a four-day mission throughout Southern Chile to donate wheelchairs-bringing renewed optimism and opportunity to those in dire need.

By Gina Mullins-Cohen

In November 1998, 20-year-old Cristian Catvilef was beginning his workday at a construction site located just outside Orsono, Chile. Unlike some indigenous people to this region, Cristian, a Mapuche Indian, believed he had a promising future. He was dedicated to his job and put pride in his work. Cristian also was aware of his good fortune. He was aware of it each morning as he walked several miles to the site. He was aware of it every hour of his 10- to 12-hour workday, as he carried several hundred pounds of sheet metal from one workstation to another. Cristian had simple dreams. He wanted to build a good life for his family. He also hoped that others indigenous to this region would follow his lead and not end up drunk or defeated like so many others he had known in his young life.

However, it was on one particular day in November when Cristian’s life changed permanently. While carrying over 200 pounds of scrap iron on his back, he fell through a weak patch of flooring, plummeting eight-and-a-half stories to the ground. Cristian’s body smashed against a large metal support beam that projected outward from a lower unfinished floor of the building site-breaking his fall, but crushing his spine.

According to the Center for Disease Control, the second most common cause for spinal cord injuries throughout the world is from falling (see side bar on page 38). Cristian Catvilef is just one of millions of people with spinal cord injuries who cannot afford the cost of a wheelchair. However, thanks to the efforts of the Wheelchair Foundation, wheelchairs are being donated throughout the world to those who desperately need assistance. In June 2005, ERA and some of its members pledged money and resources to the ERA Wheelchair Project, which supports the humanitarian efforts of the Wheelchair Foundation.

In October 2006, Dan Danielson, CEO and co-founder of Santa Monica, Calif.-based Mercury Media and former chairman of ERA, took a small group of people through five towns in Southern Chile on a mission to distribute wheelchairs sponsored by members of ERA. I was asked to accompany the group comprised of Dan; Hannah Steffy of Mercury Media; Rodolfo (Rudi) Harwardt, a past governor of Rotary International’s Southern Chile district number 4350; his wife Maria Elena Harwardt; and Chris Lewis, director of the Wheelchair Foundation. Following are a handful of stories we encountered on this journey.

The plane lands in Puerto Montt at 1:00 p.m. It is cold and raining. Dan, Hannah and I run from the plane into the small terminal. Immediately, Dan spots Chris Lewis, director of the Wheelchair Foundation. He is there with several members of local Rotary Clubs, including Rudi Harwardt, past governor of the Rotary district, our host and organizer for the ERA Wheelchair Project, and the official volunteer coordinator for all Wheelchair Foundation distributions in this region of the world.

Introductions are made as we gather our luggage and pile into a large white van. Rudi slides into the driver’s seat.

“Listen now,” Rudi says. “Here is the schedule. First we go to the schoolhouse, then to the hospital to see the main doctor who works with the Chilean telethon. After that, we will have some lunch with people from the local Rotary Club. After lunch, we go to a place about 40 kilometers from here-a small town where we have many requests for wheelchairs. There are many important stops to make today. We cannot be late. Many are waiting for us.” Rudi speaks German, Russian, Spanish and English. His accent is unusual to our ears, but his English is excellent.

The first stop, an elementary school is nearly a 30-minute drive from the Puerto Montt Airport. Rudi pulls the van up to the main entrance. Two large glass doors open and a crowd of people rush out to meet us. We shake hands, and they lead us into the school. The small assembly hall in the school is packed with people. The overflow spills into the hallway past the rooms of the first and second grade classes. We form a long line and slowly walk into the room. One by one, people begin to clap and stand up from the chairs. Many of the wheelchair recipients are here. Some are already sitting in their new red wheelchairs. Others are scattered throughout the audience, waiting for their turn to accept the gift. I raise my camera to snap a picture of the crowd and a boy about 12 years old sitting in one of the new red wheelchairs reaches up and grabs my arm.

“Ahhh!” the child wails in excitement. His head shakes up and down as he smiles at me. I know in this instance that this is the most beautiful smile I have seen in my life. His small arthritic hands pull me down into him with a hug.

“Gracias, señora…gracias,” he says. His arms wrap around my neck and shoulders. The hug tightens. I feel his small face, now damp with tears against my own.

The boy’s father speaks as Rudi translates. “My son can go to school now,” he says to me. “He can go to this school…this school. He has never been to school with other children before. Thank you, lady. Thank you. Thank you with my life for this.”

Purranque rests in a valley of lakes and farmland set against a brilliant backdrop of distant volcanoes. We drive along a narrow road past an abandoned factory and into a neighborhood lined with small wooden houses. It is early evening. We are running several hours late for the Purranque distribution, due to the number of personal in-home deliveries we have made this afternoon. It is only our first day, but our routine is securely in place. During the distribution, which is usually at a town hall or recreation center, Dan heads up the group and we help assemble the wheelchairs. Each of the wheelchairs is bright red. Each one is sturdy and constructed of quality materials. Once out of the box, they are easy to assemble. They are made in five sizes-children’s sizes, 12- and 14- inch seat widths and adult’s 16-, 18- and 20-inch seat widths-to accommodate the height and weight of each individual recipient.

During the distribution in a small village outside of Purranque, we pick up Claudia, a social worker from the area. Claudia has worked with the Rotary Clubs for several months to prepare for this delivery. We make two more in-home deliveries then head to the recreation center in Purranque, where the ceremony for the larger distribution will take place.

“This is a part of our village without much promise,” Claudia says. “There are many poor families here. Most of the young women and men stop going to school. Too many drink, and they drink too much.”

When we arrive at the recreation center, children are playing in an adjoining field. Across from the field is a row of small rundown houses made of wood and tin.

“At 3:30 p.m., over 170 town people were here for your arrival,” Claudia says. “I think the whole village came to greet you. This is a happy day for them.”

We walk inside and are greeted by a much smaller crowd who are wearing their Sunday’s best. Those who remain have waited hours to meet us and give personal thanks. The ceremony begins. I look through the crowd. It is mostly physically disabled children with their families. There is a young girl whose mother holds her tightly in her seat. The father’s arms spin around her, trying to catch the child’s uncontrollable punching fists. The girl cries out again and again. Each cry is louder than the one before. The words of the speaker are lost in the sounds of her pain.

Against a hand painted mural of the snowcapped volcanoes, a young mother gently hushes a small boy who is now disturbed by the cries of the girl. The mother kisses his forehead and sings into her young son’s ear-a hopeful attempt to quiet the constant moans and bellows from deep within his tiny, heaving chest. Once the speeches end, the parents and townspeople shake our hands.

“Gracias, gracias,” each one says. A woman approaches Dan as we start toward the door. Claudia translates for us. “Thank you, sir. Thank you for your help and kindness,” says the woman. “My husband can take a better job now. Before, he had to help me at home with our daughter. She has been unable to leave the bed, and I cannot lift her or move her myself. Now [that] she has the wheelchair, we will not have to move her so many times during the day. Thank you.”

When we arrive at the town hall in Orsono, most of the wheelchairs have been assembled. The room fills quickly as the recipients are wheeled into the room for the ceremony. The mayor speaks then introduces Rudi. Rudi enthusiastically talks about the joint efforts of the Rotary Clubs and the Wheelchair Foundation. He mentions the strong relationship the Rotary Clubs have in the area and the joy of working with Chris Lewis. Rudi also acknowledges the people representing ERA, with donations for over 560 wheelchairs to this region. He then turns and introduces Dan, Hannah and me. The crowd claps and photographers from local papers click away at the vibrant scene. Everyone in the room wants a photo with Dan or to shake his hand. Each person has a story to share.

“Gracias, Señor Dan,” an older woman says. The woman, dressed in a long black skirt disguising her disfigured legs, grabs Dan’s hand. She stretches upward kissing Dan’s face and begins to cry. She hides her eyes with her hands and quickly shakes her head from left to right several times.

“Gracias, señor,” she says. “Gracias.” A woman translates for her. “I cannot walk,” the old woman says wiping the tears from her cheeks. “I used to help my daughter with her children and with the meals for her family, but I have been confined to the bed every day for many years. Now my daughter and her children have to care for me. I have been a burden to them.” Her eyes fill with tears again.

“Now I can be useful to my daughter, sir. Thank you, thank you,” she weeps.

Dressed in a neatly pressed navy windbreaker and dark trousers, a young man sits in a new red wheelchair. A young woman, who wheels him up to the podium to receive his certificate of wheelchair ownership and to talk to us, accompanies him. The young man waits patiently for Dan.

“Hola,” he says with a wide grin, as Dan reaches to shake his hand. The translator bends down to hear the man speak. “I have been without the use of my legs since 1998,” the young man states. “I could not work and have been bedridden most of that time. This wheelchair makes a difference to me and also [to] my family,” he says. “Now I will find work again.”

“What is your name?” Dan asks as he shakes the young man’s hand.”

“Cristian,” he says. “My name is Cristian Catvilef.”

The ceremony in Valdivia is in a park in the center of town. We drive up and make our way through the crowd of locals. It seems as if the whole town has turned up for the celebration of thanks. The mayor and town council give speeches about the local Rotary members and this fortunate act of kindness-a true blessing. Chris and Dan speak to the crowd as Rudi translates word for word, stopping just short of a joke Dan makes about too many speeches. He then smiles and translates Dan’s words, including the punch line. The audience roars with laughter at Dan’s words-they too want the celebration to begin.

Folk dancers of all ages form groups in the center and begin a show of traditional dancing of the region. A talented group of musicians and singers perform folk music for us. They are dressed in colorful, traditional attire.

The sun sets and a bright October moon rises in the pale sky. We turn and wave goodbye to the children. They stand in the street, little arms waving, smiling faces bouncing with chatter from the thrill of this day-meeting us, the visitors talking to us. We wave until we cannot see them anymore.

The road leading to Villarrica winds along a crystal clear lake. It is a beautiful drive. The Villarrica volcano is only 20 kilometers from the town of Villarrica. It is still active. You can see the steam rising from the mouth and disappearing into the blue sky. Our white van pulls up to the Villarrica City Hall. It is built of logs, as are many of the commercial buildings in town. Inside, rows of assembled red wheelchairs fill the hallway and much of the meeting room. There are several piles of wheelchair boxes still unopened. Dan, Rudi and Chris pull them down and we assemble the wheelchairs, carefully placing them one by one with the others. The rows of red wheelchairs grow quickly. The town of Villarrica will receive over 30 wheelchairs today. As the people enter the hall, we notice two elderly people in the crowd. They are each sitting in very old, broken wheelchairs and each person is accompanied by a nun.

The speeches begin and a spokeswoman for a senior center tells the story of the two elderly recipients. “These people are from the local senior center,” she explains. “They have no relatives and no one comes to visit them. Severe depression has plagued both of them since the loss of their mobility. They are truly the loneliest people in the senior home.”

The older woman is wheeled up to the area set up as a stage. She looks at us and smiles. The translator relays some of her words to us.

“Thank you and God bless you,” she says. “I used to help the cooks in the kitchen with the meals for the others in the home. I love to cook. I especially like to make bread. This was the highlight of my day when I could walk. Now I can return to the kitchen and help prepare the meals for the others that are less fortunate.”

“Is there anything else you will do now that you have your wheelchair?” asks Chris.

A broad smile crosses her face. “Now, I can also chop wood” she exclaims.

The nun accompanying the woman starts to speak. “I have been worried for my friend,” she states. “The bed sores on her body are painful for her. She needs this wheelchair to have more mobility.”

Next, the older man is wheeled to us. “I want to thank you,” he says. Tears fill his eyes and he stops mid sentence, appearing ashamed of his tears.

Dan takes his hand and bends down to his level. “What will you do now that you have your new wheelchair?” he asks looking directly in the older man’s eyes.

The translator repeats the question. The man looks at Dan, takes a deep breath and gives a slight chuckle. “I will take myself into the TV room to watch soccer,” he says with a big smile.

I sit with Rudi and Chris at the hotel for breakfast. Rudi is going over the Temuco distribution schedule with Chris. Dan, Hannah and I head home today. Chris and Rudi will continue with the ERA distribution here, in Temuco. Today is the largest distribution-104 wheelchairs are to be distributed to people coming as far as three hours away by bus or van.

“Rudi, you do a lot of these distributions-it is ongoing, physical work for you and Maria Elena. It is also a lot of planning on top of running your business and your family. How do you and Maria Elena continue to do this?” I ask.

Rudi places the day’s schedule into a folder. “It is a simple thing really,” he says looking at his coffee. “We spend so much time rushing here and there for one reason or another, growing our businesses, shopping and buying things for our kids and ourselves. This is a simple thing to do, but it is an important thing to do. And you know,” he says, looking straight into my eyes, “it is very good for the heart…this giving. It is contagious.”

The Birth of the ERA Wheelchair Project

Dan Danielson, CEO and co-founder of Mercury Media and former Electronic Retailing Association (ERA) chairman, first heard about the Wheelchair Foundation from a friend at church. Danielson believed the members of ERA could be pulled together through one common cause to make a positive impact in the world.

“The Electronic Retailing Association is an international association. We have members in Europe, Central and South America, Asia, as well as North America. It was important that we find an organization to fit our international profile. I also was looking for an organization where each donation was measurable,” Danielson says. “I wanted to find an organization where a single donation could significantly affect a life for the better. After researching the foundation and meeting with President David Behring and Director Chris Lewis, I knew the Wheelchair Foundation was a perfect fit for ERA.”

Barbara Tulipane, president and CEO of ERA, agrees with Danielson. “The Wheelchair Foundation is a charity that former ERA Board Chairman Dan Danielson identified as a worthy organization to which ERA members around the world could contribute,” she says. “Because of its global reach and overall mission, many in the ERA membership and I agreed. Dan Danielson has been ‘giving back’ not only to charitable organizations, but also to ERA and the industry for many years. His sense of responsibility and dedication has brought us all (within and outside) the association a greater appreciation for what we may take for granted: the ability to move at will. The Wheelchair Foundation offers opportunities through mobility to rebuild their lives.”

Presently, ERA has generated enough money for over 2,225 wheelchairs.

Founded on June 13, 2000 by Kenneth E. Behring, the Wheelchair Foundation is the largest wheelchair relief organization in the world. Currently, the Wheelchair Foundation delivers up to 10,000 wheelchairs per month. Each wheelchair is high quality and specifically designed for developing countries. A similar wheelchair would sell for over $500 in the U.S.

Getting involved with the Wheelchair Foundation was a natural choice for Lewis. When asked why the Wheelchair Foundation was the direction he decided to follow, Lewis states, “I have volunteered for the Muscular Dystrophy Association for 35 years. I have helped my father, Jerry Lewis, with the MDA telethon since I was 14 years old. That work made me who I am today and has given me the ability to do the work that is needed most for the Wheelchair Foundation.”

After meeting with Behring in early 2000, states Lewis, “I knew it was only a matter of time before I would get involved in the creation of this effort. The cause is critical to so many lives around the world that I knew I had to be a part of this. A $75 wheelchair donation provides a child who has never walked, or one who may not be able to go to school, with the opportunity to participate in every day life. A wheelchair can help people get back into some kind of employment. So it not only changes the life of the person who receives the wheelchair, [but] it also significantly changes the life of the family members or caregivers.”

“ERA’s Wheelchair Project has been on course. We are going to continue with fund raising for at least one additional year,” says Danielson. “We are seeing a lot of momentum now-I believe we will experience another very active year in 2007. We already are slated for distributions in Israel, El Salvador and another to Chile. This April, ERA also will sponsor the distribution of a 280-wheelchair container in Hong Kong.”

When Danielson asked Adam MacDonald, CEO and founder of Take 2 Direct in Irvine, Calif., if he’d like to contribute by providing production services for the project, he quickly agreed.

“I have great respect and admiration for Dan,” says MacDonald. “We produced a 30-minute spot, wrote the script and introduced actor Joe Mantegna as the spokesman. The entire time we were in production, all I could think of was how much I wanted this piece to be great and for it to be successful for this project. This is a unique cause. It is important to do your part.”

Collette Liantonio, president of Concepts TV Productions in Boonton, N.J., has firsthand knowledge of the importance of a wheelchair in a physically disabled person’s life. “My mother was in a wheelchair for several years,” she says. “If it had not been for the wheelchair, she would have been bedridden. It is extraordinary that Dan is leading this cause in our industry.”

Hannah Steffy, who was instrumental in organizing the trip to Chile, states that she felt the experience was unforgettable. “While on the trip,” says Steffy, “there was one woman in particular by the name of Rose whose determination and enthusiasm for life was so strong despite her physical disability that I realized whatever obstacles came my way, I would be able to handle. Rose had a true spirit for life and her spirit was a great example to me. We each have a lot to give. “

Recently, West Corporation of Omaha, Neb., and InPulse Response Group in Scottsdale, Ariz., donated to the Wheelchair Foundation in the name of their clients. Rod Kempkes, executive vice president of West, says, “This is a great cause. This year, the idea to donate to the Wheelchair Foundation came from Steve Pittendrigh, CEO and founder of InPulse Response Group.”

Pittendrigh adds, “It is wonderful to take the strengths of the companies within our industry, pull those strengths together and apply them to a cause as good as this one.”

Kempkes adds, “ERA is an association involved in altruistic pursuits, as well as industry pursuits. This is an association that gives back.”


Special Thanks to All Who Have Donated Time & Services to the Wheelchair Foundation Campaign*


  • Apex Media
  • Discovery Communications
  • Ion Media
  • Revenue Frontier, LLC

Creative Design

  • Group 22

Credit Card Processing

  • Thil Logistics
  • Transfirst ePayment Services


  • Aestheticom


  • Canada - Northern Response (Int’l), Ltd.
  • Japan - Oak Lawn Marketing
  • Latin America - PanLatinoTV
  • United Kingdom - TV Network UK

Live Shopping

  • ShopNBC

Long-Form Media Placement

  • Euro RSCG 4D DRTV
  • Mercury Media

Long-Form Production

  • Take 2 Productions


  • Action Television
  • Fairway Media


  • KR Direct
  • Novus Print Media


  • DMAC
  • Electronic Retailing Association (ERA)
  • Electronic Retailer Magazine
  • Response Magazine


  • Marketing Architects
  • Salem Radio Networks

Short-Form Media Placement

  • Cmedia
  • Icon Media Direct

Short-Form Production

  • Caudill & Associates
  • C Spot Run Productions, LLC - “Smile” Campaign

Tape Duplication and Shipment

  • PMT
  • Tree House Media


  • Jack King, Celebrity Broker


  • LiveOps
  • West Corporation

U.S. Hispanic

  • 28:30, LLC

*List as of December 2006


Donations for the ERA Wheelchair Project in conjunction with the Wheelchair Foundation can be made by calling (800) 987-6462, e-mailing [email protected], visiting the ERA website at www.retailing.org, or by sending a check made payable to the Wheelchair Foundation and submitting it to ERA, Attn: Tim Brown, 2000 North 14th Street, Suite 300, Arlington, VA 22201.


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