Retirement: an opportunity to transform lives

When Coral and John Elks’ son-in-law suffered a spinal injury in an accident, little did they know that the impact of this experience would extend far beyond their family … and transform the lives of hundreds in Southern Africa.

Coral and John’s church is involved in a number of projects, most of which support healthcare:  training neo-natal resuscitation; clean water initiatives; measles campaigns; cataract surgery; the donation of wheelchairs.  It is in this last project that the Elks are actively involved.

But, the mere donation of wheelchairs is no guarantee of an improved life for a handicapped person … in fact, it may be a death sentence.  “An improperly sized wheelchair can cause further damage or injury to the user,” explains Coral.  “We have seen a child trying to manoeuvre an adult-sized wheelchair, and damaging his too-short arms and shoulders in doing so.” A persistent danger is pressure sores from ill-fitting chairs, and, once infected, the outcome could be fatal. “Generally, the lifespan of someone who suffers a spinal injury in third world countries is no longer than two years,” John clarifies – many die while waiting for a wheelchair. Also, the wheelchairs that are donated are the sturdier type more suited to the rugged conditions of rural Southern Africa.

As a result, the contract agreed on by the provincial government and the Elks’ church includes the provision of training of government physiotherapists and occupational therapists in the assessment, prescription and fitting of a wheelchair – an aspect of the treatment often not taken into account. “In all of our projects, the church’s aim is to improve the lives of people in the community in a sustainable way – and education, not only donation, is the means to achieve that,” says John. The World Health Organisation has accredited the training programme.

A business with joy as the reward

“It’s like we have opened our own business,” laughs Coral, “without the monetary remuneration.  We organise contracts, assess the need, order and have the equipment shipped, have the wheelchairs made up, arrange accommodation and the programme for the trainers and trainees. We are the people on the ground, managing the logistics, and check feedback reports that enable us to ensure the manufacture matches demand.” It is in this latter function that John’s expertise as an accountant is put to use … six years after retirement from formal employment.

This accountability sees the Elks travelling to the four projects under their care – Polokwane, Durban, Gaborone and Zimbabwe – one week out of four, for follow-up visits.  So, you can certainly say that travel is on their Bucket Wheel, and it is travel with a significant purpose.

On the couple’s visits to recipients of the wheelchairs, they are accompanied by the therapists.  This allows the therapists to check for pressure sores (often thereby preventing amputation) and to understand what home conditions are like.

“It is very humbling to see what an impact the donations are making in the lives of people,” says Coral.  “The work we do is hard but people are so grateful. We can’t believe how cheerful people are in such difficult conditions – and those with the wheelchairs are the lucky ones in these circumstances.” The impact is clear: being able to access transport and to get employment are crucial aspects of empowering those with these disabilities.

And what of the future?

“We will carry on for as long as we can,” says John.  “We have made contacts and built relationships with officials – it would make no sense for someone else to try and build trust from scratch.”

John explains, “When I retired, we had one year of ‘leisure’ before we started our first church project.  While I enjoyed the freedom of not having to go to work every day, I quickly realised that we could become sedentary and listless without something worthwhile that we enjoy … which is not to say that our work is fun, but it is a joy and a privilege to be a part of changing the lives of others.”

The project has changed the Elks themselves. “We’ve become a little more empathetic,” acknowledges John. “You can see suffering wherever you go, and it is easy to say ‘shame’ and carry on with your life. You can also say that it is the government’s job – it is, of course, and, yes, poverty and corruption are a source of frustration; but, if we waited until our donations were always handled perfectly, we would not do anything.  We don’t live in a perfect world, and we need to make a contribution.”

And the Elks are certainly doing that, helping hundreds of people live better lives.

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