Joni and Friends

So That My House Will be Full

 

words by: Alyssa Hupp

 

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“Open your mouth for the people who cannot speak, for the rights of all the unfortunate.
Open your mouth, judge righteously, and defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
Proverbs 31:8-9
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it was a hot july day, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. It was likely a normal day for most visitors roaming the Chesapeake Bay, laughing and splashing in the water, and it was a typical day for Joni, a seventeen-year-old girl poised to dive into the water.

An athletic girl skilled at swimming, Joni dove into the water much the same as every other dive she’d taken in the past. But she misjudged how shallow the water was.

One moment. One decision. And suddenly, it was no longer a normal day.

Joni was about to face the harsh reality of creating a whole new definition of an “ordinary day.” An active girl’s dive into shallow water brought on pain and suffering, but also light, joy, and an incredible ministry for those with disabilities.

That dive into shallow water caused a fracture between the fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae. Joni Eareckson Tada became a quadriplegic (or tetraplegic), paralyzed from the shoulders down.

Joni Eareckson Tada was born in 1949 in Baltimore, Maryland, to John and Lindy Eareckson. The youngest of four daughters, Joni was given the feminine spelling of her father’s name. Joni was an active teenager, and she enjoyed horseback riding, hiking, tennis, and swimming. But after that life-changing dive, her life took a different turn. No longer able to enjoy her active hobbies or even get out of bed by herself, Joni had to create a new normal and find a new passion and purpose in life.

Joni and Friends

It took time for Joni, and she struggled with depression, thoughts of suicide, and lack of faith in God. She thought to herself, how could a good God let this happen to her? The people closest to her were pushed away by her anger. But one day, during occupational therapy, Joni learned to paint with a brush between her teeth. This act of creation stirred something within her—she felt a similar passion and purpose for drawing as she did for swimming. Joni began studying the Bible again and recommitted her life to God. 

To this day, Joni writes the same way as she paints, although she relies on voice recognition software for most writing tasks. To date, she has written over fifty books, recorded several musical albums, starred in an autobiographical movie of her life, and is an advocate for people with disabilities worldwide.

In 1979 Joni and Friends was created to accelerate Christian ministry in the disability community. Joni and Friends is built on biblical truth and the foundation of Jesus Christ. For over 40 years, they’ve been advancing disability ministry and changing how those with disabilities are treated. 

Joni and Friends also hosts Family Retreats (a retreat experience for families living with disability), Warrior Getaways (which offer a similar experience for families of servicemen and servicewomen injured in war), and Wheels for the World.

“Together, our mission is to glorify God as we communicate the Gospel and mobilize the global church to evangelize, disciple, and serve people living with disability.” – Joni and Friends

 

Joni visits a child in Peru in need of a wheelchair

Joni Eareckson Tada (center) visiting a child in Peru in need of a wheelchair

 

The 200,000th Wheelchair

The long drive had left the Cordova family weary and hungry. But they had arrived, they had finally arrived. They were going to meet people from Wheels for the World so that their son Levi could get fitted for his first wheelchair. Unfortunately, for the Cordovas and many other families in El Salvador, wheelchairs are unaffordable. This gift from Joni and Friends would change Levi’s life forever.

Levi has cerebral atrophy and chronic kidney disease and is unable to walk on his own. For his parents Lilian and Ludwin, the weight of carrying Levi was becoming too much for them. It wasn’t so hard when he was a small child, but he grew and became harder to carry. As Levi grew, he became restricted by his disability and could not participate in many everyday activities. Yet, Levi was still able to move around some. Seated on his behind, pulling his body forward with the one hand he has control over, he scooted around his home.

But now they had arrived—a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get Levi a wheelchair. With pounding hearts and eager souls, Levi and his family were directed to a wheelchair. Levi’s chair. Seated in his new chair, Levi’s smile brought tears of joy to the faces of everyone that saw him. Hours went by; every detail of the wheelchair was made to work perfectly for Levi and his needs. The seat was adjusted and a chest harness was put in so Levi was safely contained in the chair. The truth of Jesus was spoken in soft words throughout the process.

Levi’s parents cry out “Sabemos que este regalo vino de Jesús!” We know this is a gift from Jesus. 

Fitted with his new chair, Levi and his family are led to a pastor who has another gift waiting for them. The small family is seated around a table where the kind man hands them two books. Levi’s parents study them—a Joni Eareckson Tada book and a Spanish-language Bible. The pastor talks with them more about Jesus and invites them back to his church. He ends their meeting with a prayer. He prays for Levi, his family, their safety, and thankfulness for Levi’s chair—a piece of equipment that will change Levi’s life forever.

Levi’s chair was the 200,000th wheelchair that Wheels for the World had fitted for a person in need.

 

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“Levi’s chair was the 200,000th wheelchair that Wheels for the World
had
fitted for a person in need”

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Two men in brown uniforms work to repair a used wheelchair

Two men at a restoration center work to repair a used wheelchair for Wheels for the World

 

The Healing Message of the Gospel

Wheels for the World has a complex and interesting process. While some may assume that most of the work happens in other countries while delivering the chairs, there is quite a bit of work that happens in the US while preparing the chairs.

Wheels for the World distributes approximately 17,500 to 20,000 chairs each year. They expect to reach close to 26 countries by the end of this year.

The process begins with 470 volunteers—known as the “Chair Corps”—who collect chairs, canes, crutches, and other mobility equipment on Wheels for the World’s behalf. This equipment is then stored in barns, garages, sheds, and warehouse space. Once enough equipment is collected, everything is packed and shipped to restoration centers, where the equipment is brought back to a “like-new” condition.

There are currently 15 restoration centers—these are prison industry programs. There are state, federal, and private prisons involved. These programs offer vocational training to those in prison. It also allows them to be part of a Christian program within the prison industry. Being a part of giving much-needed mobility equipment to those in need helps those in prison find new meaning in life, and some even find their way to a personal relationship with God.

Each restoration center ships out approximately 240 chairs at a time, packed into a 40′ high container for travel. The chairs are all collected and then packaged and shipped to the countries in which Wheels for the World will be working. A team of about fifteen travels with the chairs. The team is built of four physical therapists, four mechanics, a photojournalist, a team leader, and the remaining are considered support personnel.

It is a lengthy process of about three hours to fit someone with a wheelchair. Not every chair is the same, and every person has different needs. After the fitting process, they are then sent to meet with a pastor. During this time, they are given a book about Joni’s life and their own Bible. The pastor then goes in-depth into the Word of God, gains a personal understanding of their spiritual and physical needs, and invites them back to church. Throughout the whole process, members of the team share their testimonies and open their hearts as to how the healing message of the gospel has changed their lives.

This process of delivering a wheelchair to someone doesn’t just begin with collecting that chair. No, the story begins in the heart of someone who desires to give their chair to someone in need.

Around half of the chairs collected by the Chair Corps team comes from the loss of a loved one. These chairs are personal. They’ve often seen someone through many life experiences before reaching the restoration centers. Many people keep the equipment of a disabled person after their death; it’s too hard to let go. This equipment was a part of that person and letting go of their loved one’s wheelchair feels like letting go of the person they have lost.

If the equipment is not kept, most gets thrown away. It’s sent off to a junkyard where its purpose is lost. But wheelchairs and other equipment donated to Wheels for the World receive a new purpose. It changes yet another life for the better.

 

A Wheels for the World worker poses with a grinning child in need

This process of delivering a wheelchair to someone doesn’t just begin with collecting that chair. No, the story begins in the heart of someone who desires to give their chair to someone in need.

 

Hope Springs Up

Ten tiny fingers and ten tiny toes, just like every other baby born in the hospital that day. But not every child was given such a low chance of survival through the night. Doctors told Joy that her baby would never survive till morning. Born with cerebral palsy, Kekoa was left severely disabled and medically fragile. But living up to his name, Kekoa, which is Hawaiian for “Courageous Warrior,” did survive the night. And many more nights after.

For over 20 years, Kekoa blessed those around him with love and smiles and giggles. But on his 26th birthday, Kekoa left this world and met Jesus in his new and perfect body, healed of all earthly disabilities and pain.

Two years after Kekoa went to be with Jesus, Joy still held on to her son’s chair. It was a piece of her little boy. The wheelchair had been fitted perfectly for his body. Every detail of the chair reminded her of his sweet personality. Kekoa could not speak, but he shared his heart through his winsome smile. Kekoa’s wheelchair went everywhere. School. The grocery store. Everywhere Kekoa went, the wheelchair went. It was a part of him. For Joy, letting go of that chair felt like she was letting go of her son. It was the last part of him that she had.

But Joy began to realize that God had a greater purpose for Kekoa’s wheelchair than simply leaving it to sit empty. Joy felt strongly that Joni and Friends was the place that would give new life to her son’s wheelchair. But Wheels for the World doesn’t collect wheelchairs in Hawaii. Feeling God tell her that Joni and Friends was supposed to have this chair, Joy reached out to them. Through different contacts, the wheelchair was shipped from Hawaii to the Joni and Friends headquarters. In addition, Joy bought herself a ticket and flew to the Joni and Friends headquarters.

Joy told her story while sitting down with the team at Wheels for the World. She shared that she believes that Kekoa lived an amazing life due to the grace of God and that his wheelchair has a huge journey ahead of it.

“And if one person can come to know Christ because of Kekoa’s life in this chair, then I so want to give it.” – Joy Kamakawiwoole

Joy also shared that while the suffering is difficult, life here on earth is just the blink of an eye, while eternity is forever. Joy knew that something as simple as a wheelchair here in the United States is incredibly profound in developing countries. She knew that by donating Kekoa’s wheelchair, she was sharing a piece of equipment that would change an entire family’s life. Along with the chair, they would also be receiving hope and the knowledge that there is more to this life than suffering.

“I want that child to come to know how loved they are.” – Joy Kamakawiwoole

 

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“While the suffering is difficult, life here on earth is just the blink of an eye

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How Can I Help?

If you’re anything like me, these stories have pulled at your heartstrings. As a Christian, our priority is to love and serve God. We are also called to love and serve others, especially widows, children, and the disabled.

Having grown up with a sister in a wheelchair, a lot of Joni and Friends’ work feels very personal. I can understand what a blessing wheelchairs, walkers, and other equipment are for those living with disabilities. Without a wheelchair, my sister wouldn’t be able to leave our home. She wouldn’t be able to sit up. Without her wheelchair, my sister would be limited in many ways; her wheelchair gives her freedom.

Many of the wheelchairs collected by Joni and Friends are kept in large storage rooms, buildings, and barns. One great help to Wheels for the World is when someone like you offers space for chairs to be stored.

You can also volunteer to be a part of Wheels for the World’s Chair Corps team by collecting chairs on their behalf.

Donations are always accepted. Mobility devices such as wheelchairs, walkers, canes, and other equipment can all be donated to Wheels for the World. These chairs are not a part of the logistical pipeline—they are personal. Each chair has a story. Usually that story would end with the passing of a loved one, but Joni and Friends has created a way to keep that story alive. The chair receives a new purpose—taking the gospel with it.

And of course, there’s one thing that anyone and everyone can do—no matter your age, no matter how much space or money you have to share, no matter where you live—you can pray. Pray for the process. Pray for people like Levi and all the others blessed with these wheelchairs and the good news of Jesus Christ. Pray for the missionaries and teams that work hard to make Wheels for the World a reality. Pray for people like Joy who are willing to give up something so precious to them in the hope of changing another person’s life. And as always, pray that Joni and Friends can share the light of Jesus with those who need it.

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If you are interested in donating space, volunteering, or donating mobility devices,
you can reach out to Joni and
Friends on their website.

Joni and Friends

Address:
P.O. Box 3333, Agoura Hills, CA 91376

Phone:
818-707-5664

Website:
www.joniandfriends.org

 

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Alyssa is an Ohio-born writer who loves her family, dogs, and anything outdoors. Being homeschooled, she focused on her writing skills in high school and carried that skill into an adulthood career. She is also writing her first Christian Young Adult novel, which she hopes to have finished by 2023.

 

Levi’s Story — Until His House is Full: Episode 2

 

Kekoa’s Chair

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