By Staff Sgt. Alex Licea, 3rd BCT PAO, 82nd Abn. Div., MND-BMarch 26, 2009
BAGHDAD - Eighty-two Iraqi kids found a new reason to smile, thanks to efforts from Iraqi National Police officers and U.S. Paratroopers in the Rusafa district of Baghdad, March 23.
Dubbed Operation Enhanced Mobility, officers from 2nd NP Division and Soldiers from 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, presented the new wheelchairs to disabled children during a humanitarian effort in the northeast section of the city.
The wheelchairs, donated by Wheelchairs for Iraqi Kids, are adjustable and designed for growing children. Officials said that unlike low quality wheelchairs, which often do not fit a person correctly, these wheelchairs will adjust with the child's growth thus allowing the chairs to be used for several years.
Brad Blauser, founder of Wheelchairs for Iraqi Kids, said individuals and organizations in the U.S. donated the funding that made the delivery of pediatric wheelchairs possible.
More than half of the wheelchairs donated during the day were funded by 10-year-old Ben Werdegar, of Woodside Calif.
Ben heard about the program online in February 2008 and decided he wanted to help the children of Iraq.
"Ben decided he would play his guitar and raise money for the Iraqi children on the streets of San Francisco," said Blauser. "Since that time, Ben has played most weekends for more than 52 weeks; raising over $13,000 to help the children of Iraq. He deserves a huge amount of recognition for his commitment and dedication in helping disabled Iraqi kids."
Blauser founded the organization in 2005 at the request of military officials in the city of Mosul after Soldiers observed children dragging themselves on the ground due to birth defects such as cerebral palsy and spina bifida, and has since given away over 800 wheelchairs all over Iraq.
The wheelchairs, designed by ROC Wheels in Bozeman, Mont., are designed for rough terrain. Each wheelchair is valued at $3,500 and funded entirely through donations. The U.S. government ships the wheelchairs to Blauser overseas for free.
"This was an excellent opportunity to show the population how the government of Iraq and the Iraqi Security Forces are working together to provide for the people they represent and protect," said Capt. Jesse Stewart, the commander for Troop C, 5th Battalion, 73rd Cavalry Regiment.
Blauser hopes he can start to manufacture the wheelchairs in Iraq in order to help more disabled children and help the local economy. Blauser said that making the chairs locally is important shipping them from the U.S and getting them on the ground in Iraq can take around four to six months.
"I can only distribute a few hundred wheelchairs per year because of limited manufacturing capacity," said the Dallas native. "This is why it's so important to get manufacturing going locally if I'm really going to make significant progress in Iraq in helping disabled kids get the wheelchairs they need."
Blauser added his goal is to produce 50,000 wheelchairs over the next five years to give to needy children in the Baghdad area. The long-term goal is to have every disabled child in Iraq provided with a free pediatric wheelchair, regardless of their ability to pay.
The combined forces plan to donate additional wheelchairs to needy children in the weeks to come.