When he arrived in Lima, Peru last month, Oakhurst Sierra Rotarian Brian Negley had little time to sleep. But he didn’t mind.
“We got to the hotel at midnight, but we had to be up at 6 the next day,” Negley said. “I was ready.”
For the next six days Negley, along with 11 other volunteers through Modesto-based charity Hope Haven West, worked 10-13 hour days helping more than 150 disabled Peruvians into a free wheelchair, then customizing it to fit their needs.
“Oh it was fabulous,” said Negley, who had never before visited South America. “Obviously, we didn’t speak their language but you could see it in their eyes. You could feel it in their hugs. They’d try to speak a little bit of English, and we’d try to speak a little of Spanish, but mostly, that’s how we communicated. Our eyes and our hugs.”
For everyone from toddlers to those older than 20, with conditions from scoliosis to cerebral palsy, Negley, partnered with Dr. Cathy Petersen and the rest worked strenuously to find the right fit for each person.
“(Mostly) kids would come in with their parents, who were normally carrying them in with no wheelchair,” Negley said. “They had been waiting a long, long time. But they were the most rewarding ones. These kids who were very mentally aware, you could see it in them that we were helping them, and doing the right thing.”
Negley said he worked as Petersen’s nurse - maybe more of a mechanic - adjusting each chair’s measurements and positioning to fit each patient. For anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours, they worked on each chair, making sure every person left comfortable and cared for, he said.
In cases like that of Dario, a paralyzed young man whose chair took nearly two hours of work, Negley said it was worth the time.
“... He was so excited that he was able to self propel himself around the room,” Negley wrote on social media as he documented the trip. “Many hugs, kisses, laughs and tears happening this week in Lima!”
Lonny Davis, director of Hope Haven West, said the charity helps fit some 800-1000 people in new wheelchairs each year.
Davis said the group would wrap up its final wheelchair distribution trip this year in Ecuador, after giving out hundreds in Guatemala, Vietnam, Mexico, and Peru. More than 50% of the chairs are donated by Rotary clubs, he said, and most others are free, then refurbished before they’re distributed.
Additionally, Davis said Hope Haven West had no administrative costs or salaries, meaning Negley and the 11 he traveled with, as well as all others who work for or with the charity, paid their own way.
And though Negley paid for his airfare and hotel to spend six tireless days helping the people of Peru into wheelchairs, he said that made the second portion of his South American journey - two weeks hiking to some of the country’s most wondrous sights - even more valuable.
“One part of the trip was all about service to others, and the other was all about me,” Negley said. “If I hadn’t done that work, the second trip wouldn’t have been as rewarding. I think each part wouldn’t have been the same without the other.”
Negley spent the two weeks at sites near the city of Cusco, including Lake Titicaca, Rainbow Mountain, and a five-day trek along Salkantay Pass to Machu Picchu, a hike he called a life-changing spiritual experience.
“I’ve been looking at pictures of it all my life,” Negley said of the 15th-century citadel, believed by most to be an estate for Incan emperor Pachacuti. “So to see this, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World for the first time, it was amazing.”
When the early-morning fog lifted over the majestic site, Negley said he and all other visitors were left speechless.
“I had seen some other ruins in Cusco so I had a bit of background on the Incas, but this was icing on the cake,” Negley said. “It was incredible.”
Negley got to Peru Sept. 11, and returned Oct. 1.
And though he came back with a cold, would he ever return?
“I would love to go again, and I most definitely encourage others to,” Negley said. “Being able to help others was great, and combined with being able to see South America for the first time, it’s given me the thirst to go back and explore.”