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Volunteers build ?ATV of wheelchairs’

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by John Gordon

Don Thomey (left) and Gifford Babcock assemble a Personal Energy Transportation vehicle.
July 27, 2006

By John Gordon*

LULING, Texas (UMNS) — Inside a noisy central Texas warehouse, volunteers work on a special gift for those a world away.

The gift is mobility. They are making PETs — Personal Energy Transportation vehicles — for residents of developing countries who cannot walk.

“I call it the ATV of wheelchairs because it can just about go anywhere,” says Jake Royall, president of PET Project Texas.

The hand-powered, three-wheeled wooden carts are built with tires wider than those of wheelchairs so they can travel on unimproved roads, gravel and grass. Most of the volunteers and ongoing financial support for the Luling workshop come from United Methodist churches in the area.

The PETs mean more than mobility. Royall says they also restore dignity.

“In Third World countries, a person who is disabled is looked down on by his family,” he explains. “A person who’s disabled can’t contribute to the support of the family, and therefore, the family won’t support them.”

Royall and his wife, Gwen, and two friends — Joe and Karen Svoboda — work four days a week at the workshop, sawing, drilling, painting and packing the PETs.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by John Gordon

Jake Royall and his wife, Gwen, pack a box with a completed PET vehicle.

Their goal is to build 250 PET vehicles this year.

“We’re talking about 10 to 12 hours of time from start to finish, to build just one,” says Joe Svoboda.

“Just for the material that we must buy, that we can’t make or volunteers can’t make, we spend in the neighborhood of $230 or $250 for one PET,” he says.

Sometimes, the workers dig into their own pockets if funds run short. When the workshop needed a $2,000 forklift, the volunteers bought it as a birthday gift for Jake Royall.

Karen Svoboda, a retired teacher, has traveled to several countries, including Jamaica, Honduras and Mexico, to help deliver the PETs and demonstrate how to assemble them.

“The man who got his PET in Monterrey said, ‘Now I can look my boys in the eye for the first time,’” she says. “He had a smile from ear to ear. And to know that we helped him realize so much more in life is a blessing.”

Some of the volunteers are in their 70s and 80s. Don Thomey, 86, and Giff Babcock, 78, both members of First United Methodist Church in Lockhart, Texas, help at the workshop once a week.

“I hope they’re enjoying (using the PETs) as much as I enjoy doing it for them,” Thomey says.

Babcock worked as a Habitat for Humanity volunteer before joining the PET project.

“I feel I’ve got to give back, because the good Lord’s been kind to me and given me a bunch of stuff,” he says. “He’s gotten me through four cancer attacks.”

And some of Jake Royall’s leisure activities have taken a back seat to building PETs.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Ray and Shirley Truhn

PET vehicles are distributed to Uzbekistan and other developing countries.

“I don’t get to fish as much as I’d like to, but this keeps old folks out of trouble,” he says.

The Luling workshop is one of 11 production sites in the United States, according to Mel West of Columbia, Mo. West started the project in his garage 11 years ago. The Luling site was the third to begin building the PETs.

So far, about 8,000 have been sent to 57 countries. Many more are needed.

“We need, conservatively, three and a half million PETs,” West says. “Then we need another three and a half million push PETs.”

Many of those who receive the carts were injured by land mines or stricken by polio, while others were disabled by war injuries, accidents and birth defects, he says.

“Many of them are able to get jobs, go to school, and support their families,” he says.

Gwen Royall makes sure something special goes into each shipment from the Luling workshop. Stuffed animals are used as packing materials.

“I’m a grandmother, and I felt like the children had to have toys, they had to have something out of the box also,” she says.

“It makes me feel excellent. The more I can help, the happier I am.”

*Gordon is a freelance producer and writer based in Marshall, Texas.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5458 or

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