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When a wheelchair is an 'unthought-of luxury'

December 1, 2011 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Richard St. Denis was named one of the Top 10 CNN Heroes of 2011
  • Since 2008, St. Denis has helped provide hundreds of wheelchairs to rural Mexicans
  • St. Denis: "In many rural areas of Mexico, people don't even know what a wheelchair is"

(CNN) -- Since 2008, Richard St. Denis and his nonprofit, World Access Project, have provided hundreds of wheelchairs and mobility aids to people living with disabilities in rural Mexico.

St. Denis and his group also teach recipients how to use their chairs and maximize their quality of life.

CNN asked St. Denis for his thoughts on being chosen as one of the Top 10 CNN Heroes of 2011.

CNN: Where were you when you got the call that you'd been selected as a Top 10 CNN Hero?

Richard St. Denis: I was at home in Santiago Casandeje, Mexico. I was completely surprised.

I am honored to be one of the Top 10. The door has been opened to show the world the huge need for wheelchairs in Mexico, the plight of those who are stuck in their house because they can't move, and all the lives we are changing.

CNN: What do you hope this recognition will mean to the World Access Project?

St. Denis: I hope that many people and organizations will come alongside of World Access Project to help provide mobility and a better quality of life to the many disabled of Mexico. ... I hope that people will realize that poverty is poverty and (that) those who have so much (should) help those in desperate need, in whatever country.

I hope new volunteers, individuals or organizations -- from schools, churches -- will come to Mexico to give away a wheelchair, to encourage, to inspire and to change a life.

I started this organization because I saw the happiness, joy and ability of Leti, a 17-year-old girl who I gave her first wheelchair. When American volunteers participate in a wheelchair donation, they realize the huge difference they can make in another person's life and the unexplainable feeling of watching someone get up off the floor into their first wheelchair. The one who receives the wheelchair laughs, and the mother cries tears of joy.

I hope that not a single used wheelchair in the U.S. will ever be thrown into a dump and that every wheelchair that is sitting in a garage or basement will now be given to someone who desperately needs it.

I hope this award means we will be able to provide a new life and opportunities to all those in Mexico who deserve to be as independent and successful as people with disabilities in the U.S.

CNN: How will you use the $50,000 award that you receive for being selected as a Top 10 CNN Hero?

St. Denis: Every penny will go to World Access Project to continue the work we're doing.

In the past couple months, our financial levels have been dropping, and I was wondering if we would last another year. We have new cities we want to go to, and there are thousands of people in Mexico who need wheelchairs.

CNN: What do you want people to know most about your work?

St. Denis: In many rural, impoverished, uneducated areas of Mexico, people don't even know what a wheelchair is. They don't know what their disability is or why they can't walk. They have no hope, no expectation for the future, and no resources to change their situation. ...

We host clinics and camps to teach them how to use their wheelchairs so they can get out of their house. We use able and disabled volunteers to encourage them and give them hope. The Mexican government is trying to help, but doesn't have the financial resources or connections in remote areas to contact or help everyone. Many people in tiny pueblos have no electricity, dirt floors and cook using a wood stove. For a person with a disability to have a wheelchair is an unthought-of luxury.

I have seen the lives of many people changed after receiving a wheelchair.

Kike, who fell out of a tree when he was 12, is now an artist and helps support his family. Tomás was in a car accident, is now married, works in Walmart and has been promoted from greeter to the electronics department. Leti is married and has two children.

(With) a wheelchair, some motivation, a new perspective, love -- a new life is created. No degree, no training, no qualification is necessary. Just a willingness to provide mobility, motivate and encourage are all that is needed to help someone get to where they never imagined they could be.

Read the full story on CNN Hero Richard St. Denis:
Free wheelchairs give new life to rural Mexicans

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