Three years ago, a Korean veteran’s dying wish to have his wheelchair given to someone in need led to the formation of a program that has donated hundreds of chairs to veterans and their family members.
Frank Smith, a Vietnam veteran and founder of Veterans Mobility Corporation, said his plan had been to help his friend’s father — the Korean veteran — by refurbishing the chair after he died. Smith said the group who fixed up the chair decided to give it to a veteran in Pocatello — a retired Navy Seal.
“It was going to be our one and only chair,” Smith said.
When people learned about the good deed through a local news article, a request came in for another chair to be refurbished, and then another, Smith said. That one chair became two, then three. People started donating chairs for veterans, including one lady in Kansas, who Smith said donated 60 chairs to the group. All of a sudden, they were in the wheelchair business. As of September 2019, Smith said the number of power wheelchairs refurbished by Veterans Mobility was 250.
Smith said another part of the reason he decided to continue with the project was the freedom the group had granted to one of those who had fought for the freedom of others.
“Once we did that first chair, to see the joy that it gave that veteran, and then all of a sudden he was out of bed and rolling around … its’ just a really good feeling all over to give that back to someone,” Smith said.
Veterans Mobility gives chairs to people throughout the country. Smith said the group has given chairs to veterans and their family members in California, Wisconsin, Virginia and other states. However, he said most of the chairs stay in eastern Idaho, including a few in Jefferson County. Smith said a veteran’s daughter in Jefferson County who had been involved in a car crash received a Veterans Mobility chair, as did a veteran of World War II living near the county line.
“That was cool,” Smith said of helping the WWII veteran.
Though the work has been rewarding, the group has also faced a number of challenges. Smith said until recently, they have had to operate out of temporary, donated locations. In November 2018, the group’s storage unit was burglarized with about $3,000 to $5,000 worth of items taken, according to The Post Register.
Now, Veterans Mobility has a space to work out of in the form of the old market building in Ucon. Smith said while the building is not free, Veterans Mobility is able to pay off the cost to purchase the building with no interest and no payment timeline. Essentially, the space is “almost donated,” he said.
“We’ve continued on with real adverse conditions,” Smith said. “And to have this new building has been really nice.”
Smith said overall, the community is supportive. He said since moving to Ucon, Veterans Mobility received a donation of 18 chairs from a neighboring state, and one community member volunteered to pick them up.
“The city has welcomed us, and they’ve just been phenomenal trying to help,” Smith said. “It’s like the whole town is happy we’re there.”
The move to the old market building is taking work, since it needs refurbished. Smith said bathrooms and heating systems are the current projects. Smith said since moving to the Ucon location, Veterans Mobility has put out 10 chairs, less than their average. However, while progress has been slow of late, Smith said the group’s mission has spread to others.
Heroes on Wheels, a Rexburg organization, took inspiration and received training from Veterans Mobility, Smith said. He said he is not territorial of the wheelchair projects, and would like for more people and groups to be involved.
“We’d really like to see it spread all over the United States, but unfortunately it’s a lot of work so a lot of people don’t want to do it,” he said.
The project may not be nation-wide, but Smith said for the people they can give power wheelchairs to, it makes a world of difference. Often, those who need the wheelchairs are stuck in bed, in their homes or have a manual wheelchair.
“It just really makes us feel good to see the joy that we give these people,” Smith said. “With 250 chairs, we have 250 stories, and every one of them has a happy ending.”
To donate or contact Veterans Mobility, go to https://bit.ly/2VLFntY.