The emotional work never let up in northern Thailand -- and neither did the heat and humidity -- as the volunteers fitted people with wheelchairs that would at last give them mobility.
"My team distributed about 80 wheelchairs and spent upwards of three to five hours with one chair so it fits perfectly," said Pleasanton resident Holly Micheff, an occupational therapist, who made the trip in November with Wheels for the World. "Some of them had been waiting for chairs for upwards of five years. They were all ages."
Sixteen volunteers made the trip last fall, splitting into teams to travel to different parts of Thailand, each with a mechanic, an occupational therapist, a translator and a support person to fill out a questionnaire with the family.
"Some of the mechanics on our team have been doing it for over 20 years, and they've designed a manual and a whole tool kit," Micheff explained during a recent interview. "One of the main parts is teaching them about safety and maintenance of the wheelchair."
Micheff, a 2008 Foothill High grad, earned a master's degree in occupational therapy from Dominican University after graduating from UC San Diego. She began working at California Children's Services in Alameda County in May after receiving her license, and she was hired as a permanent staff pediatric occupational therapist last month.
"A pediatric occupational therapist is someone who helps kids overcome disabilities and achieve optimal independence," Micheff said.
She works to help individuals perform everyday tasks, from brushing their teeth to going to a job.
"Those with disabilities may be held back by physical or emotional or a psychological-social component," Micheff said. "We work with clients to determine what's limiting them. We give them exercises or other adaptive equipment that can help them be independent."
Then in the fall, she heard about an opportunity at Joni and Friends, an international ministry to help those with disabilities. Its Wheels for the World program collects used wheelchairs from throughout the United States, has them refurbished by prison inmates, and then sends volunteers overseas to distribute them.
"A dear friend of mine was at a Joni and Friends retreat and heard an announcement that Wheels for the World were going to Thailand and needed an occupational therapist," Micheff said. "My friend immediately thought of me."
After being accepted into the program, Micheff went into overdrive to raise the $3,000 needed to cover the flight and living expenses for 2 1/2 weeks.
"My family and friends all came through," she said.
On the trip, the volunteers partnered with Thai Rotary and the local church -- a minority in Thailand, which is 95% Buddhist. They also distributed Bibles written in Thai.
"Our mission was not to convert them but to show them we're here because we care about you and love you, and we believe our God loves us so much that we are attributing what we're doing to our God," Micheff said.
This idea could be difficult to convey, she noted, because Buddhism is based on merit rather than "the concept of God."
Micheff said the last person she fitted was a little girl who had been a healthy child until the age of 4 when she was bitten by a dog. Doctors believe this resulted in some type of brain infection, which caused muscle impairment and quadriplegia.
"What touched my heart so much -- and it really opened my eyes to the need in Thailand, and I'm sure several countries -- is she can't move her muscles to eat by mouth anymore," Micheff said. "She was so malnourished, I had to step away for a second."
The girl had been lying down for the six years since the incident, which resulted in scoliosis, common in such cases, Micheff said. They got her sitting in the chair, which will at least give her the best life she could hope for and the best posture for her body.
"She has a very loving, supportive family," Micheff said. "I was trying to educate the mom on how to maximize her calorie intake."
Micheff returned from Thailand energized, and she hopes her experience will inspire others.
"I was able to help this girl in a really tangible way," she said. "I left there with this desire to do more."
"Living in America, it's so easy to think material things bring us satisfaction but then we see people like that but who are more joyful," Micheff reflected. "What really matters is relationships and connecting with people and investing in people."
She is confident that new opportunities to help others will open up and meanwhile has the job she always dreamed of at California Children's Services.
"I'm flabbergasted sometimes, the overlap between my career and the opportunity I had to go to Thailand," she said. "It's cool when you feel you're where you're supposed to be, doing what you love and loving what you do."