Mandela’s granddaughter to deliver keynote at Free Wheelchair Mission event in Costa Mesa


Swati Dlamini Mandela took it to heart when her late grandfather, Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, issued a call to action when he turned 90: He had done his part, he said, and now was the time for others to step up to make the world a better place.

She and her sister decided to wage a battle for equality in the workplace. They founded Qunu Workforce, an organization that assists South Africans living with disabilities and the resulting stigma. Some of their passion stemmed from the struggles of their brother, who suffers from epilepsy, Mandela said.

In February, her path crossed with Irvine-based Free Wheelchair Mission — a humanitarian organization that has produced and delivered more than 1 million wheelchairs to those in need around the world — at a home for the elderly in Alexandra, one of South Africa’s poorest townships.


Mandela said she was particularly struck by one wheelchair recipient, a man appearing to be in his 60s who was unable to walk after a stroke.

“He didn’t think his disability would be permanent,” she said. “I was taken by his spirit. It reminded me of my grandfather’s spirit. The power of positive thinking. That you can overcome any situation you are in.”

Mandela will share that story and others Thursday as keynote speaker at Free Wheelchair Mission’s 15th annual “Miracle of Mobility” event at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa. The event has raised more than $1.5 million to provide more than 20,000 wheelchairs each year, organizers said.

Free Wheelchair Mission’s goal is to provide mobility to disabled people, who in some developing countries may be forced to crawl or be carried to get around. And that mobility can lead to hope and independence — a chance to go school, to work, or just participate in the community, said founder Don Schoendorfer.

“All you need to do is get someone off the ground,” Schoendorfer said. “If they have the use of their hands they can get a place of their own. They are meeting people at eye level. They are not dirty from the ground. They can shake hands without being embarrassed. These are all things we take for granted.”

Schoendorfer’s inspiration was a trip to Morocco, where he saw a disabled woman dragging herself across a busy street. After he returned home, he tinkered around in his garage on designs for inexpensive and durable wheelchairs and eventually quit his job as a biomedical engineer to start the mission in 2001.

The wheelchair designs have evolved over the years, with the latest featuring adjustable seats and the ability to fold up for easier travel. They have been distributed to 93 countries, including Vietnam, India, China, Peru and the Philippines.

Schoendorfer clearly relishes the success stories. Flor Jasmine, a 12-year-old girl living in a remote village in the Andes of Peru, got the millionth chair last year. A bout of meningitis had left her unable to walk, and she had to be carried from place to place by her mother or father, he said.

The wheelchair allows her to continue school, he said, adding that her story is featured in the PBS documentary series “The Visionaries.”

And there’s Indra (her last name was not available), who lives in India and was the fourth person to receive a wheelchair. She was 15 at the time, and the chair allowed her to finish high school, Schoendorfer said. She went on to get a degree in computer science and a master’s in teaching.

“And now she is dedicating her life to help teach disabled people in India,” he said.

With the 1 million goal achieved last year, the organization is launching a new drive: One Million by One Million 2025. This goal: to distribute the second set of 1 million wheelchairs in half the time. The group estimates that 70 million people worldwide are in dire need of a wheelchair.

Mandela said she has been amazed by the mission’s success.

“That speaks to impact,” she said. “There are so many people in need across the world, and this gives people so much hope.”


What: Free Wheelchair Mission’s “Miracle of Mobility” with Swati Dlamini Mandela

When: 5:30 p.m. Thursday (program begins at 7:15 p.m.)

Where: Renee & Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

Cost: $195 per person


Learn how to donate a wheelchair for $80:

Susan Gill Vardon is a Times Community News contributor.