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July 23, 2003 Akron Beacon Journal article by Mary Beth Breckenridge

Helping the needy brings blessings

Donated equipment reconditioned. It's sent to disabled In poor countries

Patrick Rimke used to think his work was a blessing to the people he served. Now he realizes it's the other way around.

Rimke is director of Wheels of Hope, the only paid employee of an organization that reconditions donated wheelchairs and other medical equipment for people in impoverished countries, mostly in Central and South America. When he travels to those countries and sees people receive their equipment, he said, he's moved by their joy and gratitude.

"When you leave, you always get more than you gave," he said.

Rimke, 52, has been refurbishing wheelchairs for charitable purposes since 1990. That's when a friend named Mark Richard got him involved in a similar organization called GRACE, the Guatemalan Relief and Craft Exchange. The two men had met when Rimke was working for Akron-Cleveland Home Medical Services, where he repaired medical equipment and built custom wheelchairs, and Richard gradually drew Rimke into his mission and later employment with Wheels for the World, a program of the Christian disabilities outreach organization Joni and Friends.

The deciding factor, Rimke said, was a trip he took to Guatemala with GRACE in January 1992. "That's when I came home with missionary got-to-go syndrome," he said, adding with a smile, "That wore off in a couple of weeks."

The need to be a missionary in another country may have ebbed, but the desire to do missionary work did not. He said he and his wife, Lynda, feel called to the mission field, and this work is their way of fulfilling that calling.

Wheels of Hope started in 1997, when Wheels for the World changed to having prisoners recondition its wheelchairs. The two organizations still work together on some projects, but the smaller Wheels of Hope can respond faster and more easily to requests for a single wheelchair or a small quantity, Rimke said.

Some of the equipment it refurbishes is donated by Miller's medical equipment company or by people who no longer need it, but about 90 percent comes from Invacare Corp. The Elyria company donates equipment that is outdated, damaged or otherwise unsalable.

Wheels of Hope gives the reconditioned equipment away free, but Rimke said it must go outside the United States to eliminate the possibility of lawsuits should something go wrong. Most of the equipment goes to Central and South America, and the organization also works with a missionary team in Thailand.

Rimke's job involves such tasks as maintaining inventory lists, checking over equipment to determine what repairs are needed, overseeing the volunteers who do the reconditioning work at the Canton warehouse and running the organization's office, which is a bedroom in his home in Akron. His wife is in charge of the organization's Web page and newsletter and serves on its board, and their son, Ethan, 17, has traveled with the organization to Honduras and Thailand.

Rimke works part time for Wheels of Hope, along with working as a construction subcontractor. "I would love to do this full time," he said, but he realizes that would involve a lot of fund-raising work. "And I don't want to do that."

Since 1997, he said, the organization has given away about 5,000 wheelchairs along with other equipment such as crutches, walkers and oxygen equipment. More importantly to him, those donations have provided an opportunity for his organization and the churches it works with to evangelize to the recipients.

Rimke is firm in his belief that the organization's work is divinely directed. As an example, he recalls a Peruvian parathlete who contacted Wheels of Hope looking for a specific sport wheelchair that the organization didn't have. "I told him, 'We need to pray about it,' " Rimke said.

Less than two weeks later, the organization received the exact chair the athlete wanted, except it was yellow rather than the green he'd requested. That hardly mattered. "He was overwhelmed with joy," Rimke recalled.

Judging from Rimke's face as he tells the story, the athlete wasn't the only one.

 

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