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Finding Freedom on Wheels

For many parents of area handicappedchildren, just getting out of the home torun errands is a major undertakingwhich often involves carrying the childto the nearest bus station. A newFoundation hopes to change this.QUEPOS, Puntarenas – The white folks wearingmatching white T-shirts were wiping the sweat off theirforeheads when a woman, standing out from the sea ofwhite shirts dressed in a red sundress, carried in a 9-yearoldCosta Rican quadriplegic girl with cerebral palsy.The young girl, Ambar Esquivel, who cannot walk onher own, was there to meet several therapists and receive awheelchair made specifically for her.Robbie Felix, the woman in the red sundress, picked upthe mother and daughter in her white SUV and broughtthem to the site of the weeklong clinic in the retired teachers’building about 15 minutes outside of Quepos, a porttown on the central Pacific coast.They were greeted by 19 volunteers in white FundaciónRoberta Felix T-shirts, who completed a thorough evaluationof Ambar through a translator. While the therapist andmother talked, Sara Moore took Ambar’s measurementsand began sifting through boxes and suitcases looking forappropriately sized pieces to build a wheelchair.MOORE, who sells wheelchairs for a living in Texas,was on her fourth trip to Costa Rica to help fit children intodonated wheelchairs.“I don’t relax very well, so this is a good vacation forme,” Moore said, fanning herself in the thick tropical heat.Moore met Felix, owner of Hotel California, while shewas on a previous mission trip. The two women stayed intouch and Felix invited her to help with the project inQuepos.“I’ve been selling wheelchairs for 25 years now,”Moore said, “and coming here makes me remember why Ido this. These families are so grateful, whereas the familiesat home just expect this.”SHE claims her reasons for coming are not completelyselfless.“There is no better feeling than doing something forsomebody and they walk out smiling,” she said. “Youshould see it. ‘Thank you so much’ and ‘We really appreciateit’ and they cry and it’s just great. It’s a great feeling toknow you’ve done something good. It makes you sleepwell at night.”On the last day of the clinic, Felix drove all over thearea picking up people who had no other way to get to theclinic.“The reason we’re doing this clinic,” Felix said, “is toget all these kids a proper evaluation and then they cancome here on a regular basis to get therapy.”Felix says because most services are in San José, andsome are in Puntarenas (a Pacific port city several hoursfarther north), living in Quepos is extremely hard on peoplewith health problems.“Mom gets up at the crack of dawn,” Felix said,describing the trials and tribulations she’s heard severaltimes, “finds someone to take care of the rest of her kidsand spends hours traveling and waiting to get one hour oftherapy for her kid at a public hospital. So they don’t gettherapy. They just don’t get therapy. It’s too difficult.”THAT’S why Felix’s foundation is building a therapycenter for children and young adults in the area, whowouldn’t otherwise have access to care and therapy. Thecenter will officially open Aug. 6, when one of Felix’s bestfriends and major donors will be able to attend.“Otherwise, where are these kids going to go,” she askswith a desperate twinge to her voice. “I mean, seriously,where are they going to go? They can’t even leave thehouse. If they have a wheelchair, they can’t use it on thesidewalks because the sidewalks have holes in them. Theycan’t go anywhere downtown because the buildings aren’taccessible. The parents have to carry these kids around andif they’re too big, what do they do?”Felix has found 135 cases of handicapped children andyoung adults in the Manuel Antonio-Quepos area in need ofequipment and therapy. In Matapalo alone, a town of 900people, there were 30 cases.She pointed out that even though the number is large, itmay not seem like a problem to the average citizenbecause, “no one ever really knows how many handicapped kids there are here because they just can’t come out of thehouse.”In fact, the whole idea started because, unbeknownstto her, Felix had a young handicapped neighbor in need ofa wheelchair.A few years ago, a San José-based foundation collectingmoney to buy a wheelchair for her neighbor knockedon Felix’s door. She donated money and met the boy.“But the wheelchair never materialized and I knewseveral other people in Manuel Antonio who were donatingto this imaginary wheelchair,” Felix said.AFTER getting to know the boy’s mother, Felix triedto get a wheelchair for him on her own and began to lookfor therapy options.“Being an American in Costa Rica and realizing therewere no services was shocking. There was nothing, Imean nothing,” Felix said.The two main goals of the foundation are to help thechildren help themselves and to give the parents a breakin caretaking.“A lot of the kids need 24-hour care,” Felix said. “Allparents have children thinking that one day their kid willbe self-sufficient. The more the kids can do on their own,the less the parents worry about who’s going to take careof them when they die.”Gregoria Calderón is a 51-year-old stay-at-home singlemother of a 14-year old daughter with cerebral palsy,Yudy, and six other children.Calderón spends her days at home with her daughter.On good days, Yudy can help wash the dishes or pick upclothes, but Calderón still has to dress her and feed her –when they have food to eat.“Most of us who are mothers ofhandicapped children are singlemothers and we’re very poor,” shesaid. “My son fishes and that’s theonly income that we have.Sometimes the fishing is good andsometimes it’s bad.”ANOTHER thing Felix wouldlike to do with the foundation is offerfull meals to the children at the foundationor donate meals to the families.“These kids need high caloriemeals,” Felix said. “We’re not talkingrice and beans. If they don’t eat well or if they don’teat, that only adds to their problems.”“Yudy is really smart and she loves computers,” saidher mother.Calderón would like to send her daughter to a school innearby Parrita with a special room for handicapped children,but she worries about letting Yudy travel on her own.Yudy cannot walk on uneven surfaces, like the gravelroad in front of their house. The left side of her body doesnot cooperate with her brain and one leg is longer than theother.“They told me I can send her on the bus (to Parrita),but I would have to take her to the bus everyday,”Calderón said. “What if there is no one there to help heroff the bus? I just worry too much.”BUT, Calderón says she has alot of faith in Felix and she knowsshe could send her, worry-free inAugust, to the school and therapycenter Felix is building.“The goal is to get them as muchindependence as possible,” Felixsaid. “If they can go to the bathroomon their own or dress themselves oreven learn to wash the dishes, thenwe’ve accomplished something forthem and for their parents.”At the very least, she said, it willbe comforting to the parents to knowthat once or twice a week they candrop their kids off somewhere they will be safe, well-caredfor and have fun with other people. At the same time, theparents can take that time to do whatever it is they need todo, like get their hair cut or go to the grocery store.“It’s kind of like having a weekend for people who’venever had a weekend before,” Felix explained.For more info or to help, visit the Web site, call 777-3336 or send an emailto


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