By Marci Barth
Our white van climbed over the rocky terrain until it could climb no more. We pulled over into a clearing on the side of the road. Our partners from the local municipality of Santa Cruz Michapa lifted the wheelchairs from the truck that had followed us up the hill. The eight of us women hiked up a steep path in the 85-degree heat, pushing two wheelchairs until we had to pair up to lift both chairs over tree roots, bushes and large boulders.
So began Day Three of our trip to El Salvador in February. It was our Chicago-area team’s fourth official mission with Free Wheelchair Mission of Irvine, California, which manufactures and distributes wheelchairs to needy disabled people in developing countries. Our recipients must crawl or be carried until the day we bring them a wheelchair.
Our primary goal is to offer dignity and mobility for a disabled person who cannot otherwise afford a wheelchair. Even more than that, the chair provides an improved quality of life for those who care for the recipient. What I realized in El Salvador that day was that we also bring the essence of yoga. We bring seva (compassion) and metta (loving kindness), two of the cornerstones of the yoga philosophy. What’s more, yoga teaches us to believe that even in the face of scarcity and despair, abundance exists and the universe provides. We brought that message to the needy family we met at the top of that hill.
As we approached the cinder block house with openings where windows and doors might be, we could hear the labored, rumbling breathing of 18-year-old Herbert. We found hum slumped in a broken-down chair, his legs limp and misshapen. His tiny widowed mother tenderly supported his head as he fought to catch his breath. We watched as she struggled to lift his man-sized body in an effort to ease his breathing. Herbert had contracted an infection at 3 years old that almost completely shut down his breathing, eventually paralyzing him. He had little control of his bodily functions and relied on his mother to provide 24-hour care for all of his needs. A few feet across the dirt floor sat Herbert’s 16-year-old brother, Jonathan, who suffered complete paralysis at just 7 months old. The boys’ three younger siblings stood shyly nearby among the clucking, flapping chickens that seemed to live with the family.
It pained me to imagine the daily battle this mother must endure to care for her two disabled sons. how her back must ache under the weight of carrying them to bed, to the bathroom or even just to get a change of scenery. Who ever cared for her? Did she ever experience a moment of peace?
I recalled my first desire to teach yoga, to share with others the peace and ease I found in the practice. Past the physical release of tension, there was the connection with something larger: a feeling that no matter what could arise, I was supported and cared for by something divine. I wanted to share the compassion and loving kindness that that the practice of yoga had taught me. This giving, selfless mother deserved a taste of that.
While our team was busy with the necessary adjustments required to situate the boys in their new wheelchairs, I led their mother to a chair outside the house. With the aid of our interpreter, I asked her to sit up tall and take a few deep breaths. With a firm touch, I encouraged her tight shoulders to relax. With some forward folds, twists and side bends, her back began to release. In time, her breath deepened and she closed her eyes. She softened. She relaxed. A small smile came to her lips. I saw the ease wash over her.
It was in that moment that I knew we had delivered something bigger than mobility to Herbert, Jonathan and their mother. While the wheelchairs were a gift of epic proportions to this fragile family, it was clear that a simple moment of yoga provided even more. A gentle suggestion of movement, of pause, of a deep breath offered another expression of love and service this dedicated mother may have never experienced before. Beyond the gift of mobility, we brought peace, and a feeling that the universe provides. We brought yoga.
The Free Wheelchair Mission Chicago-area team of ambassadors has raised nearly $500,000 from the local community over the last five years. Find more information and opportunities to support FWM at freewheelchairmission-chicago.org and freewheelchairmission.org.