Volunteers build ?ATV of wheelchairs’
July 27, 2006
|A UMNS photo by John Gordon
Don Thomey (left) and Gifford Babcock assemble a Personal Energy Transportation vehicle.
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
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
|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
“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.
|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,
“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