PETs, for Goering, transliterate into Personal Energy Transportation, or specialty wheelchairs designed for the profoundly disabled in the developing world.
The PET-Kansas shop that Goering and his wife, Chris, established in Moundridge in 2005 has become the denouement of a drama that has been unfolding in their shop, and in their hearts, for the past two years.
These rugged wheelchairs are designed for persons with polio and birth defects, as well as landmine victims who have lost their legs.
In underdeveloped countries, most conventional wheelchairs do not hold up to rugged wear in mountains and rough terrains. Often, they break or bend, and parts are not easily replaced. When parts are available, they are simply too expensive for the poor.
|Children from an orphanage in Honduras gather with their PETs for a group photo.|
PETs, meanwhile, offer a life-saving alternative to the most vulnerable in the developing world.
The earliest version of the PET was conceptualized when Larry Hills, a missionary in Zambia, noted the desperate need for a wheelchair that could meet the rigorous demands of poverty and the lack of technological support.
Few sidewalks and streets existed there, causing persons without the use of their legs to become burdens to their families. Often their families secluded them in back rooms because they believed God was punishing them for some unforgivable sin.
Goering met Hills when serving in alternative service in Zambia with Mennonite Central Committee. At that time, Hills was experimenting with bicycles to help disabled pastors pay visits to their parishioners.
Soon afterward, Goering returned home, married Chris, and established Goering’s Auto and Muffler Repair Shop in Moundridge. In the years that followed, the couple kept in contact with Hills from afar.
Over time, Hills’s bicycles proved too fragile. He returned to the States on furlough and, in 1994, shared his desire to design a specialty wheelchair with Mel West, a United Methodist pastor in Missouri.
West presented the need to his church, outlining its specifications: The chair had to be built of wood since wood is available worldwide. It needed wide tires, parts strong enough not to break, and a cargo area for its owner to do chores and make a living.
Furthermore, it had to be sturdy, easy to maintain anywhere, low cost and hand-steered with ability to navigate rough terrain.
Enticed by the challenge, retired aircraft engineer, Earl Miner, joined West to develop a chair that would meet the specified criteria.
During the ensuing decade, the PETs evolved in a garage in Columbia, Mo. West and Miner built, fabricated and modified at least a dozen prototypes.
The first ones were shipped to Zambia by boat with an imperative for Hills to “put them in the toughest places” to field test them on location.
Since then, PETs have undergone numerous metamorphoses, the latest being a special parking brake to the steering column that Goering has developed.
In Zambia, Hills monitored the PETs closely, but the human impact of the project became evident when he nearly tripped over a woman crawling on the ground one day. She had a baby tied to her back. Parting the tall grass, he discovered two more children accompanying her.
The woman heard that PETs were being distributed in that area and dragged her body across hills and gullies for three long miles to get one of them.
The image of a mother so desperate that she laboriously performed the impossible to get there convinced Hills that the gift of mobility was critical in restoring the lives of the handicapped to a semblance of normalcy.
Leap of faith
In 2005, with support of family and volunteers, the Goerings took a leap of faith and built a PET factory on Ruth Street in Moundridge. Well-organized, the premises sports parts from axles to crank handles neatly arranged on shelves.
Volunteers from the area stop by to pick up templates, returning them with stacks of replicated parts.
As components accumulate, the Goerings mobilize their helpers to assemble the PETs. Using this procedure, they bolt together and package about three per week. When completed, Chris works with the volunteers to give them two coats of paint.
A few years ago, Mennonite Disaster Service donated 200 to 300 gallons of paint to the cause. Bright colors are not superfluous. Because PETs are attractive, they give recipients a sense of dignity and enable their owners to “stand tall” by becoming productive adults in their communities.
PETs are given at no charge to recipients, without regard to religion, race, creed, sex, age, or nationality. The only criterion is need.
Volunteers come to help regularly, some of them every day. When PETs are ready for shipping, they disassemble the steering column and compact its parts in a box.
Packing materials are intriguing: work pants, shirts, baby clothing, shoes, stuffed animals, toothbrushes, combs and used tennis balls for children.
Extra parts for the PETs are tucked into draw-string tool kits sewn by local women.
Help for Honduras
While the Goerings developed PET-Kansas in town, rural Moundridge resident Ashley Williams had been traveling to Honduras to volunteer at a Church of Christ mission for more than a decade.
On one of his trips, Williams had witnessed “a man riding a broken-down, homemade bicycle because he couldn’t walk.” Williams thought, “I could build a better bike for him.”
An article in The Moundridge Ledger announcing an open house for PET-Kansas brought Williams and the Goerings together. Hearing Williams’ story, the Goerings pledged three PETs for his next trip.
When Williams informed the folks in Honduras that he could deliver three PETs that January, they responded with a list of 200 people in desperate need of them.
Working at breakneck speed, Williams and Goering amassed a shipping container of 120 PETs from PET-Kansas, two PET shops in Missouri and PET-Tennessee. Both accompanied the shipment to Honduras.
Williams had traveled with medical, dental and optical brigades and built houses on at least a dozen trips with the Church of Christ in Honduras. He had witnessed people crawling to church and being carried in by family members because of their inability to walk.
Impact on people
Williams is drawn to the PETs because of the radical change in the quality of people’s lives that happens when given the gift of mobility.
Indeed, PETs not only gave them confidence, but they often made them self-sufficient. There were few things one could do to change their lives so dramatically overnight.
On that first trip last January, Williams and Goering gave PETs to two active boys from the Jovenes en Camino Orphanage in Zamarano. On their return trip next March, the boys will become Goering’s test case to see how the machines hold up.
Goering plans to get a reading on the PETs’ durability and take note of ways to improve them.
As part of their assignment this March, Goering and Williams are delivering 65 sewing machines for sewing classes in El Salvador. Those who complete sessions will be given machines to start businesses for their families.
At press time, Goering continues to search for machines in good working order.
Today, only a few thousand PETs are made and distributed worldwide each year, yet it has blossomed into a full-fledged charity providing the gift of mobility to more than 60 countries worldwide.
“Every 20 minutes someone steps on a landmine or scatter bomb,” Goering said. “Scatter bombs were developed to maim, but not to kill.”
At least 21 million people are in need of mobility, with numbers growing rapidly. Eventually, PET factories on location may provide the greatest hope. Only three such factories exist—in Zambia, South Africa and Mexico.
In the meantime, the Goerings perceive PET-Kansas as their way of helping “the least of these.”
All PET wheelchair factories in the United States are required to raise their own funds, and all must be volunteer-driven and without monetary profit to those who work there.
The Goerings had a good start two years ago when the citizens of Moundridge hosted a community-wide fundraiser to launch PET-Kansas.
Goering shakes his head, still amazed at their generosity.
Today, with nearly 200 PETs completed and demands on the rise, funds are needed again. Each PET costs $250 for materials and shipping to location.
Hope Haven in South Dakota has transported many of the Goerings’ chairs to countries with the greatest need. The Goerings are hopeful that donors will sense the urgency of giving mobility and dignity to millions in need.
PET-Kansas wheelchairs will be showcased at the McPherson Alternative Christmas Market this year. Market-goers can ride a PET and then purchase shares to give PETs to persons in need.
The Alternative Market will be held in Mingenback Theatre at McPherson College, Saturday, Dec. 1, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
To volunteer, schedule a program, or donate funds and supplies, readers may call the Goerings directly at 620-345-2394 or e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jeanne L. Smith is a writer from McPherson.