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Rotary Clubs' donation of wheelchairs to bring mobility to polio survivors in Ivory Coast
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Rotary Clubs' donation of wheelchairs to bring mobility to polio survivors in Ivory Coast

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What began as a challenge to raise the money to buy a single wheelchair for a polio victim in Africa has turned into a story of international cooperation and soon a celebration.

Konan Blaise Koko is excited because a shipping container of wheelchairs has left China and is on its way to his home country of Ivory Coast in western Africa. And, what’s really interesting and inspiring is the Nebraska connection to this story. Read on as we go back to 2016 on this five-year story.

Rotary Clubs around the world sponsor and help promote Rotaract Clubs for college-aged young adults. In 2016, when Koko first arrived in Lincoln to attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he realized he would benefit from involvement in the Rotaract Club at UNL. At the time, Keith Larsen of Rotary 14 was the connection between his club and the UNL group, and Jim Griesen, a long-time member of Rotary 14, was the UNL administrator involved.

At one of the fall meetings, Koko challenged the members of the club to raise funds to buy a single wheelchair for a polio victim in his home country. This fits well within the Rotary International focus on serving others and seeking to eradicate polio. Koko himself suffered polio as a child and he uses a wheelchair to get around. Club members jumped at the opportunity, and soon they were seeking to fund not just one chair, but three or four.

Then the challenge grew from three or four chairs to a container full, and as a result the need to raise money grew as well. A single chair alone costs $300, but buying them in bulk drops the price to $150. Through a connection with the Canadian Wheelchair Foundation, the UNL Rotaract Club was able to get a larger supply, but they had to purchase an entire container full.

While the price per chair was much lower, the total cost was much higher. That means the fundraising went from $1,000 to $18,000.

“I took the idea to members of my club and other clubs in Nebraska and Iowa,” Larsen said. “And after presenting to the Rotary district, about 50 Rotarians and several clubs donated, including all four Rotary clubs in Lincoln.”

This took the project to an entirely different level, cooperating with Rotary Clubs to raise the money to purchase a shipping container loaded with wheelchairs and even a supply of spare parts.

“We celebrated in June 2020 when we reached our goal of raising $18,000," Koko said. "Our Rotaract members served pizza, conducted bake sales and worked hard to raise the money.”

The next challenge was to work through Rotary to connect with a Club in Ivory Coast willing to receive the shipment and distribute the chairs. While Rotary is a sizable organization with clubs in 150 countries, making contact and getting another club to cooperate on a project can be a challenge as well. After contacting Rotary Clubs in Ivory Coast, the members in Abidjan agreed to help. They’ve coordinated with their government and sent the necessary documents to the shipping company.

Koko is now pursuing an advanced degree and doing research in Biochemistry at a university in Canada. He came to UNL with degrees in chemistry and engineering from his home country. His studies at UNL were part of a Fullright Scholarship, which enabled him to receive a masters degree in nutrition. Ultimately, he plans to enter Medical School. He hopes to visit Ivory Coast to help with the distribution of the container of wheelchairs and experience the celebration of those who receive them.

Today, that container loaded with wheelchairs is on a ship making its way from Shanghai to Abidjan. And, those 120 chairs will soon be distributed to needy individuals by the Rotary Club of Abidjan. A celebration is certain to come as dozens of polio victims receive a wheelchair, giving them mobility that most of us take for granted.

If you listen carefully, in late August when that ship docks, you just might be able to hear the folks in Africa say thank you Nebraskans, thank you for helping our people.

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