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Turning the wheels

Wheelchair project aims to raise awareness, funds in Pleasanton schools

Students in Pleasanton and other parts of the Bay Area are learning valuable lessons about physical and mental disabilities through a burgeoning awareness program.

By placing wheelchairs on local campuses and providing educational information to school leaders, the Wheelchair Foundation's From the Heart schools project aims to raise awareness about disabilities in the world, inform local students about issues faced by people with disabilities and generate funds for people in need of wheelchairs.

"We want it to be a lot more than a fundraiser," said Don Routh, one of the volunteers spearheading the foundation's effort.

"I'm just as excited about raising awareness about mobility," Routh said, adding that he enjoys helping students realize, "It's OK to be in a wheelchair, (and) you shouldn't be afraid of people in wheelchairs."

Awareness campaigns like From the Heart have held special meaning for Routh for more than three decades.

"I've been an advocate for people with disabilities ever since my son was diagnosed (with cerebral palsy) at 1 year old, which would be 34 years ago," said Routh, a retired business executive from San Ramon. "He's my inspiration."

With the help of his adult son Josh -- who uses a wheelchair -- and friend and Pleasanton business owner Bill Wheeler, Routh coordinates with the foundation and education leaders to present the From the Heart program at 48 Bay Area schools, primarily in the Pleasanton and San Ramon Valley school districts.

"This has been a wonderful service-learning project for our students in that not only do students help raise funds for wheelchairs, but they also have tremendous learning opportunities directly related to academic subjects," said Parvin Ahmadi, Pleasanton schools superintendent.

To date, schools involved in the project have raised about $65,000, putting organizers more than three-quarters of the way to the goal amount needed to bring 560 wheelchairs -- two shipping containers' worth -- to people in need in Costa Rica and Honduras this summer.

"The From the Heart schools project has certainly exceeded our expectations," said Eva Carleton, director of operations for the Wheelchair Foundation. "While we are very appreciative of the funds that are being raised to provide wheelchairs to those in need, we are even more excited about the awareness that is being raised."

Pleasanton's Valley View Elementary School was one of two local campuses to gain first-hand experience last week, being provided with demo wheelchairs for students and staff to use.

"I myself sat in a wheelchair and tried to get around the campus," Valley View principal Rafael Cruz said on April 17. "Looks easier than it actually is."

Students also got the chance to maneuver themselves in wheelchairs or watch their peers do so, as well as take part in targeted lessons.

In her fifth-grade class, Valley View teacher Jessica Dehl had her students cut out four shapes outlined on a piece of paper, but told them to use the scissors in their non-dominant hand -- an exercise aimed at making the students think about the impact of having diminished fine motor skills.

Dehl gave her students a 10-minute time limit and said they'd be graded on how straight their lines were.

"That's not fair," one girl said.

Most of Dehl's fifth-graders struggled to cut shapes, like stars and diamonds, to their liking.

"This is impossible," a student said.

Another followed with, "I can't do this." And a third child added, "The heart (shape) is the hardest because of the curve."

At the end of the exercise, Dehl -- who taught most of the morning from a wheelchair -- debriefed with her students, asking them to reflect on their experience completing the activity despite physical difficulty.

"Did it change who you were as a person?" she asked. "Did it change how smart you were?"

The class responded with a resounding, "No."

"You didn't change the person you were because of how well you cut," Dehl told her students.

Having wheelchairs on campus for a week was unique for the children at Valley View, as there are currently no students who regularly use wheelchairs enrolled at the school, according to Cruz.

From the Heart offers a variety of personal experiences to students and teachers alike.

Jennifer Gonzalez, speech pathologist at Valley View, plans to deliver wheelchairs in Honduras this July with Wheelchair Foundation reps and five teachers from Pleasanton's Lydiksen Elementary School.

"I look forward to the experience and actually doing the wheelchair distributions at the different locations," Gonzalez said.

The Valley View fundraiser, which ends on Wednesday, has generated just over $3,000 to date, Cruz said.

Vintage Hills Elementary School in Pleasanton has raised the most money per-student thus far, with an average of $8.55 per pupil, Routh said.

The campus to raise the most money overall to date is Gale Ranch Middle School in San Ramon, which collected just over $7,500 in late February and early March, according to school counselor Lori Olson, who helped lead From the Heart at Gale Ranch.

"I decided to lead ours because I actually have a sister in a wheelchair, so I know how important the cause is to provide wheelchairs for people that don't have them in other countries. In some countries people are confined to their beds, and don't have access to an education because of it," she said.

Mary Shelton, San Ramon Valley schools superintendent, said she was proud to have schools across her district experience From the Heart this year.

"It is a unique opportunity for our community to create awareness with our students around global mobility issues while raising awareness with these same students about the need for mobility in the world," Shelton said. "This project impacts our students tremendously while making a tangible difference in the world."

Nearly every public school in Pleasanton and the San Ramon Valley participated in the project this school year, according to Routh. Treeview Elementary School in Hayward and Oakland's Skyline High School (Routh's alma mater) were also involved.

Eight schools, including six in Pleasanton, took part in the program last year.

Routh said he hopes to have 50-60 Bay Area schools participate next school year, and then "expand it significantly" starting in the 2015-16 term.

Disability outreach in local schools goes beyond the From the Heart project, according to Routh, who has helped organize fundraising basketball games at San Ramon Valley High (on Tuesday) and Monte Vista High (May 6).

The schools' basketball programs will play against the Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program's Junior Road Warriors wheelchair basketball team, starting at 7 p.m. on the respective nights. Tickets are $7 for adults and $5 for students.

Founded by Blackhawk developer, businessman and philanthropist Kenneth E. Behring in 2000, the Wheelchair Foundation aims to create awareness about physical disabilities and deliver wheelchairs to those in need throughout the world. To date, the foundation has delivered or committed 951,323 wheelchairs worldwide, according to its website.

To learn more about From the Heart and other efforts by the Rouths and Wheeler, visit their website, called "Del Corazon."

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