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Puerto Vallarta • Riviera Nayarit 

St. Denis Provides Wheelchairs to Mexico

Matthew Santoni - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
December 29, 2011

Richard St. Denis became one of CNN's "Top 10 Heroes of 2011" for his work providing impoverished, disabled people in Mexico with wheelchairs.

A teenage girl disabled by polio changed Richard St. Denis' life - and he, in turn, has changed the lives of others.

St. Denis, formerly of West Deer, became one of CNN's "Top 10 Heroes of 2011" for his work providing impoverished, disabled people in Mexico with wheelchairs. CNN rebroadcasted the awards show at 5 p.m. on Christmas Day.

The young girl to whom he brought a wheelchair in 1997 while visiting a friend in Mexico later inspired him to create the World Access Project. Her joy and the independence it brought her made St. Denis resolve to continue transporting and distributing used or unwanted wheelchairs from the United States to Mexico.

"Her appreciation, seeing her move around with a huge smile on her face, it just changed my life," said St. Denis, himself a paraplegic from a 1976 skiing accident.

For five years, he collected chairs and drove them across the border. After working with a charity to distribute chairs to countries around the world, he and his wife, Hazuki, decided in 2006 to concentrate their efforts in Mexico. They moved outside the city of Atlacumulco so they could follow up directly with their beneficiaries, St. Denis said. As of this year, World Access Project had helped 600 people, he added.

The "gently-used, high-quality" wheelchairs the organization seeks are refurbished before distribution, either by disabled people in Mexico or by a service in Iowa that uses volunteers and prison laborers. World Access also distributes new wheelchairs manufactured in Mexico, and donated mobility equipment such as canes, crutches, walkers and shower chairs.

"(The cost of) new wheelchairs would vary from $250 to $5,000, and we get them all for $100," St. Denis said. Shipping the chairs costs $100 apiece.

In addition to supplying wheelchairs, St. Denis conducts daylong clinics and five-day camps to teach recipients how to adjust to mobility, primarily through sports. A former member of Pittsburgh's SteelWheelers wheelchair basketball league, he said sports encourage disabled people to build strength, skills and confidence to be active in their daily lives.

"Most people, when they get laid up, they think their life is over," said Dan Barry, one of the SteelWheelers' founders and a player with St. Denis in the team's early days. "Sports bring back the confidence level in you. You realize you can go back to college, you can get that job."

John Sikora, another former SteelWheeler who played with St. Denis, said he watched the CNN awards show this month with pride. In 1997, Sikora founded his own nonprofit, the HOPE Network of Harmarville, to help people with disabilities and chronic health issues through sports and recreation.

"Back in the mid-'70s, I think we were both learning, searching our way through a new lifestyle," Sikora said. "I don't think either of us thought we'd be doing nonprofit work for people with disabilities."

Carolyn Pali, a parishioner at Resurrection Lutheran Church of Spring, Texas, nominated St. Denis for CNN's annual "heroes" segment. The church collects wheelchair donations from the Houston region, and for the past four years has sent volunteers to Mexico to distribute them and retrofit recipients' homes to be handicapped accessible.

"He's got a really sincere heart for helping the disabled poor and immobile, to get them integrated into society to live productive, fulfilling lives," said Ric McMillian, Resurrection's associate pastor and director of leadership development.

Pali got to know St. Denis over several years of leading church groups to Mexico. He told her he once hoped he'd walk again.

"He said he was still hoping for his miracle, and I said, 'Richard, you are the miracle. You never would have done all you have if not for your accident,' " Pali said. "It's so encouraging for the people he helps to see him; he gives them so much hope."

Television crews spent several days in Mexico filming St. Denis and his organization, and voters online drove his selection to the Top 10. Making the cut came with a $50,000 donation from the cable network, which St. Denis said he'll invest in the charity.

Since the show initially aired, people have sent World Access Project even more donations, St. Denis said. One person called to ask how much it would cost to fill a shipping container with mobility supplies and send it to Mexico; when St. Denis told him about $25,000, the man promised to send $50,000.

"It's really made us feel like heroes for the day," St. Denis said.

  Learn more about DIVAC Handicap Services of Vallarta

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