The Surfers Sunrise Wheelchairs Project
How did it start?
In the mid 1990’s, on a holiday in Fiji, Surfers Sunrise member Des La Rance OAM noticed the appalling conditions crippled children face in developing countries. Being a natural inventor and designer by nature, he decided to address the matter: How to produce a wheelchair that costs little, yet is effective in rough, unpaved country? The result: a low cost wheelchair made from marine plywood and components of discarded BMX bicycles!
The big breakthrough came at the 1997 District 9640 Conference, where our project was on display. ‘A Current Affairs’ host Ray Martin was a Keynote Speaker, in his capacity as a director of the Fred Hollows Foundation. In August 1997, Channel 9 covered our presentation of the first 10 wheelchairs in Fiji. The resultant Television exposure, combined with the herculean effort of many Surfers Sunrise club members, resulted in donations of well over $100,000 just in the first three days. Shortly afterwards, a fully registered Charity Organization, “The Surfers Sunrise Wheelchair Trust Inc” was established.
From 10 to 1000 to 3000 to 9000 Wheelchairs
Our much improved financial position allowed our club to expand the scheme to not only make wheelchairs from discarded bicycles, but it became a local Community Service project: we moved into a shed provided by the Gold Coast City Council at a low rental where on Saturday mornings one saw people busily working on dismantling bicycles, cutting their frames, cutting and sanding plywood. The design was enhanced to eliminate one of the major issues of flat tyres by using new BMX wheels with solid inserts instead of rubber tubes.
Other Rotary clubs and even one of the Queensland Correctional Centres became involved in the project whereby they received a set of components, ready made for enhancement and assembly. They would carry out the finish, then return it to us for a final check and shipping. The shipping in turn would be arranged by third parties and charities. Just to name one example, the Vietnamese Community in Brisbane arranged for hundreds of our wheelchairs to be shipped to destitute disabled children in their former home country.
Some three years later in 2001, Des La Rance presented the 1,000th wheelchair in Dili (Timor Leste), again covered by Channel 9. In June 2004, our 3,000th wheelchair was presented to a deserving child in Vanuatu. In the year ending June 2019, over 9,000 wheelchairs have been shipped to all continents - yes, including Europe! (Chernobyl) – over 9,000 crippled children, living in over 30 underprivileged countries, who will no longer need to drag themselves through the dirt, who can participate in their community. Behind the scenes are the efforts of countless men and women, none more dedicated to the job than Daryl Sanderson OAM, who was a very active Chairman of the Wheelchair Trust for 19 years and Bob Harrison who was its Treasurer, up to the end of 2018.
Expansion to housing and schools
But during his travels abroad, Des also perceived another need: the lack of accommodation for disabled children. The Surfers Sunrise project was expanded to include housing for orphans and school buildings. The strategy was to design a construction which could be fully pre-manufactured in Australia, shipped in standard shipping containers and re-erected on site at the destination. It had to be low cost, easy to manufacture, suitable for flat pack shipping, suitable for tropical climates… and cyclone proof! Des came up with a design to build a low-cost, cyclone proof house for a family of up to seven people. A prototype was exhibited at the Rotary International Conference in Brisbane, in 2003, before being erected in Vanuatu. Regrettably, primarily due to local issues with customs (they made us pay import duty on a donation!), the Vanuatu project did not further evolve.
In 2004, as he accompanied a shipment of our wheelchairs to Timor Leste, Des La Rance met up with a lady who was desperately trying to accommodate dozens of orphans of the East Timor war. She had a bombed out building, but… without a roof. Whilst a local Steel Rolling plant existed, they had no steel. Des quickly drew up plans for steel trusses, then instigated communication with the local Australian Defence Forces Command (InterFET) and ultimately got to discuss the issue personally with (then) Major General Peter Cosgrove, who promptly pulled some strings with BHP. BHP then shipped the steel to Darwin, from where it was loaded onto a barge, brought to Dili, where it was rolled and ultimately was used to make the orphanage liveable. Not meaning to detract from Des’ efforts, but having the Rotary brand behind the project certainly would have made it easier by putting the stamp of ‘being all above board’ behind it.
Schools for Tsunami devastated areas
The tsunami on Boxing Day of 2004 caused widespread devastation in Indonesia and Thailand. In 2006, in cooperation with a Thai Royal Princess to facilitate dealings with the local authorities and the Thai Navy to provide man power, Surfers Sunrise erected a school building on Thai Navy grounds on Khao Lak Beach, in the Phuket region.
Not long after, another tsunami devastated large areas of Samoa in 2009. Whilst the local authorities rebuilt schools, no provision was made for pre-schools. This prompted us to manufacture a pre-school building to be despatched and erected, together with a Play Gym, in the Matafa’a Village, southern Samoa. Added to the building was also a large Water storage tank.
Three years later, the largest project ever undertaken by the Surfers Sunrise Rotary, the House of Hope, was commenced. “Officially” it was to be an orphanage, but in real terms it was to accommodate up to 32 orphaned, abandoned and/or abused children in Samoa’s capital, Apia. The project came to fruition in the second half of 2012. The entire building was pre-manufactured at our Project Shed, packed into four 40’ containers and shipped. On site, the containers actually became part of the construction. Again, a play gym was included. Further, one of our members donated equipment and know-how to set up a video link to the local court house, to avoid the children having to face the accuser in court.
In 2018, the House of Hope was complemented with the addition of a school building, erected next door. Again, the entire building was pre-manufactured, flat packed into shipping containers, which again became part of the structure when assembled and erected on site.
Fundraising and assistance by third parties
The club has continually expended serious efforts to raise funds to finance the projects. Throughout the past two decades, Apple Marketing has year on year helped to raise thousands of dollars every year. The major building projects all received partial finance by the Rotary Australia World Community Service (RAWCS) organization with so-called ‘Matching Grants’. In all the Samoan projects, we had the assistance of the local Samoa Victims Support Group (SVSG) to assist with the local authorities. Locally, we enjoyed the support of multiple High Schools, both with fundraising and with assistance on-site in the construction.
And on the home front? Truly galvanizing: Substantial financial support by the Surfers Sunrise Wheelchairs Trust spawned a similar organization with the Rotary Club of Scarborough in Western Australia, which has since grown to a massive organization. Our club has won numerous awards, not just recognizing the contribution at an international level, but also at the local level: The opportunity to “get their hands dirty” on a Saturday morning, the ability of inmates at a correctional centre “to do good”, whilst learning skills and producing something worthwhile has just as much value. It really is as much a Community Service project as much as an International Aid project.
Surfers Sunrise Rotary Club