The Accidental Leader

The Accidental Leader

Life Changing Stories That Inspire

True exemplary leaders Inspire a Shared Vision and enlist others in executing it. However, sometimes it takes a while for a leader to recognize exactly what that shared vision might be. Don Schoendorfer, for example, is one leader whose life was forever changed during a vacation in Morocco in 1977. During the visit, while dealing with panhandlers and beggars Don literally stumbled over his life’s work when he tripped over a women with disabilities clawing herself across the street by her fingernails. What struck him was not the struggle she was having crossing the street. Instead, he noticed the way she tried to avoid eye contact, attempting not to be noticed. In her culture, someone who is disabled is lower in the caste system than a beggar or a panhandler. But Don did not see a disability issue; he saw a dignity issue.

That image haunted Don for over 20 years, surfacing every few days only to be pushed down by the daily trials of making a living, raising children, and building wealth. One day, after hearing a sermon concerning the wealthy man storing grain for the future but dying before he could enjoy it, Don decided to do something. The next day he got up and asked himself, “What did that woman really need that day?” The answer was simple: a wheelchair. That was the day Don found his voice and the first day of many in which he woke up at 4 am in an effort to work on the solution.

Originally he planned to write a paper, titling it “The Safety and Efficacy of a Durable, Functional Wheelchair for the Developing World,” that he would share and perhaps inspire others. As he began his research, however, he first had to confront the fact that at a cost of $500-$4000 each a standard wheelchair is outside the reach of the world’s impoverished—people typically living on just two dollars a day and struggling to put food on the table for themselves and their families. So, Don began thinking outside-the-box. A bio-mechanical engineer by vocation, Don started exploring options for creating his own seats and then only buying the wheels. But at a cost of $100 each the wheels were much too expensive. He was no closer to a solution when he stumbled across the answer in a most unlikely place: Toys-R-Us. Walking through the store, Don came across a small bike for $40. By purchasing the bike for the wheels, he cut his cost by 75%. By purchasing the bike wheels from the factory, he saved even more.

Don’s second revelation came during a visit to Lowe's where he found a durable white polymer chair (just like what many of us have somewhere on the back porch or in the backyard). The chairs were comfortable and strong enough to handle the rough terrain they would most likely be used in. Bicycle wheels could be repaired almost anywhere in the world, since bicycles are the most common form of transportation on earth. By combining the chair and the bicycle wheels with a simple steel frame that he designed, Don had a design that was viable.

As Don continued to research the idea of an inexpensive yet durable chair for those in the developing world most in need, he stockpiled over 100 chairs. At this point, his wife challenged him to do something with them, possibly with the desire of using their garage for a car once more. He took the hint, and turned his attention to the challenge of distribution.

Don’s church was coordinating a medical mission trip to India which he was allowed to join (as a laborer, given that he had no medical training). And he received permission to take just four chairs—at a cost of $125 each. The first was given away within minutes of opening the clinic. Emmanuelle, an 11-year-old boy being carried into the clinic by his father, broke into a huge smile when Don presented him with his new set of wheels. Upon leaving the clinic his mother, through a translator said, "Bless you for this chariot."

The next day, Don followed one of the doctors on home visits in the local community. There he met Orchid Blossom, a 16-year-old girl who had never seen the world from any point of view other than a small mat located in the 8 x 10 room where she slept. After her examination, the doctor told Don that she would be an excellent candidate for one of his wheelchairs. And the following day, for the first time in her life Orchid Blossom got to see the world independently from her new chair.

Don returned to California with renewed purpose, thinking he was well on his way to completing his paper. However, soon after his return he lost his job—a challenge that ultimately brought him to rethink his life’s purpose. When people asked him what he was going to do next his standard response was, “Find a job.” But his closest friends urged him to continue making wheelchairs (to which he responded “I need to get rid of the 96 I have so my wife can park in the garage again.”). And then, to his surprise unsolicited funds starting arriving and he was encouraged to establish a non-profit organization focused on supplying wheelchairs to those in need.

When asked what his biggest challenge was in developing his nonprofit organization he says, “I was.” It took two years for him to finally realize the scope of his project and the impact it would have on people’s lives. And when Don finally started the process of founding a non-profit, he purchased the book, Nonprofits for Dummies, and followed the instructions page- by-page to apply for his 501(c)3 status.

Don was starting to feel his purpose/mission but was somewhat fearful to step into his role as a leader. He was happy with the status quo and would have continued had he found a job. But in this case, the mission found him! His friends and colleagues challenged him to take up the new non-profit and start a large-scale distribution of wheel chairs. Looking back now, Don says he would have achieved his one-millionth wheelchair much sooner had he simply stepped into leadership earlier.

As all exemplary leaders who exhibit The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® do, Don took a number of calculated risks as he continued to explore how to distribute his wheelchairs. He had learned of a warehouse in China that could create and pack a container of 500 wheelchairs at a significantly-reduced cost. Without the funds to go and inspect the warehouse, Don took a risk and purchased his first container. Within weeks, it arrived in Southern California with all the wheelchairs intact. Don took that first shipment of chairs to Mexico for distribution and soon after started ordering containers for distribution worldwide. He also began working with colleges around the world that engaged their mechanical engineering interns in receiving the containers and assembling the parts to prepare them for distribution. Don’s organization currently coordinates volunteers to distribute chairs to remote places in over 93 countries.

Listening carefully to the recipients of these innovative chairs, they later discovered that some of the wheelchairs would become unusable because of the lack of a pump or supplies to repair the wheels. Now, every wheelchair is shipped with a repair kit and a pump. Recently, the organization has also started training people who distribute the chairs to provide basic information concerning exercise and physical therapy to help educate recipients on how they can exercise and build their strength while using the wheelchair.

Six years after his first mission trip, Don would make a return trip to India to see Orchid Blossom with the goal of verifying the durability of the chair. When he knocked on the front door of her home Orchid’s mother answered and could barely contain her enthusiasm. The mother pushed Don back onto the porch and made him sit down. A few moments later, Orchid Blossom, a beautiful 21-year-old young lady, was pushed to the front door. When he stood to step forward to greet her she stopped him and indicated he should sit back down. Seconds later, Orchid Blossom pushed herself up from the seat and walked to him unassisted to give him a hug.  

Don learned that after she familiarized herself with the chair, she started building her strength by transferring from the chair to the toilet and back. That little bit of exercise strengthened her legs to the point that later she was able to turn the chair around and use it as a walker. She was determined, even though her family became worried that she would hurt herself because of numerous falls. Orchid Blossom was undaunted and continued to work toward independence. That day, this amazing young woman was fully ambulatory. Don’s chair had changed her life forever, and she was one of thousands.

Don’s outsight and continued desire for quality has driven him to make two major upgrades to the wheelchair design: his chairs are now adjustable, foldable, and meet even the challenging requirements of the American Food and Drug Administration. In addition, wheelchair kits with all components (including a repair kit and hand pump) are now compiled and distributed directly from China reducing the manufacturing and distribution costs and improving delivery time.

Don travels nationally in search of donors to support the effort, requesting support from a Fortune 500 company to purchase a full container or encouraging a school to work together to provide mobility for one person in need.

Since Don started building wheelchairs one-at-a-time in his garage, his organization, Free Wheelchair Mission, has grown exponentially. His values of honoring God, excellence, transparency, and collaboration—combined with his desire to make a difference in the lives of people in desperate need—have connected with thousands of donors, over 4,000 active volunteers, worldwide distribution partners, and 31 employees who all work together to deliver free wheelchairs to places far and wide.

  Michael Curtis, a Certified Master of The Leadership Challenge®, has 30+ years in public service including a stint in the United States Air Force. A member of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services for over 20 years, he currently supervises a team of highly motivated trainers for Adult Protective Services and can be reached at michael.curtis@dfps.state.tx.us.

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