By MARK URBAN, email@example.com
TRAVERSE CITY — Speakers at the Tuesday Traverse City Rotary Club meetings are thanked with the gift of mobility.
A certificate from Wheels of Hope, a project started in 2008 that helps build a wheelchair for a polio survivor in Nigeria, is the way Rotarians show their appreciation.
The gesture will take on a whole new meaning Tuesday, April 3. Ayuba Gufwan — founder and director of the Beautiful Gate Handicapped Peoples Center in Jos, Nigeria — will attend the weekly Rotary meeting. Gufwan, himself a polio survivor and a Rotarian, gives away free wheelchairs from parts available in Nigeria.
It will be the first time Gufwan, who will turn 40 years old during his stay in northern Michigan, has ever been to Traverse City.
"From our perspective, it's huge," said Gregg Smith, a Traverse City Rotary member and vice president of Wheels of Hope. "Without him, Wheels of Hope wouldn't exist. It's his entity that build these wheelchairs. If we built the wheelchairs here in Traverse City, the message wouldn't resonate."
Al Bonney, president of Wheels of Hope and past president of the Traverse City Rotary Club, said the $125 certificate that's presented makes a huge impact.
"This is the only way our Rotary Club thanks anybody for anything, as a matter of fact," Bonney said. "We don't give fruit baskets or peanut butter or any of that stuff. We give wheelchairs."
"It makes all the difference in the world for anyone who attends one of our meetings," said Smith.
Bonney said he was challenged to help Gufwan's cause.
"Our story, the Wheels of Hope story, actually started in 1998 when — through Rotary — I met a woman who knew Ayuba and had been there several times," Bonney said. "And she said, 'Would you like to head up a grant to get some money to Ayuba?'
"So 27 Rotary clubs from three continents joined together and raised $120,000 in 2009 and sent it off to Jos in cooperation with the Rotary Clubs in Jos, because that's how the Rotary system works — from Rotary Club to Rotary Club and then the Rotary Club there doles out the $120,000 to Ayuba, who is a Rotarian himself. Ayuba bought a truck, a generator and welding machines and all that stuff and built 600 wheelchairs."
Bonney said Gufwan's mission is a direct reflection of what he went through.
"He didn't go to school until he was 19," Bonney said. "His uncle gave him a wheelchair and he came home with a lawyer's degree. The decision in his mind that he was going to start a thing called the Handicapped Rehabilitation and Advocacy Center, which is morphed into another name, the Beautiful Gate Handicapped Peoples Center, and he's going to build wheelchairs, specifically designed for Nigeria and polio survivors and gives them away. He was going to build them out of bicycle parts that were available in Nigeria and was going to build it with Nigerian labor. And he's been doing that for probably the better part of 10 years.
"Ultimately he's built over 5,000 wheelchairs and helped untold thousands of people with this, almost a ministry. And I don't use that word lightly."
Gufwan's stop in Traverse City is part of a five-week visit to the United States that includes a tour of Paperworks Studios and meeting with the Rotary Club of Petoskey. Gufwan also has stops planned at several churches and organizations in Michigan and around the country which support his cause, as well as doctor appointments in Florida for advice on post-polio syndrome.
But the message is the real reason, the same one that Gufwan painted on the side of his van: "End Polio Now."