Personal Energy Transportation International, or PET, built its first rough-terrain transportation device for people with leg disabilities 21 years ago. With 25 affiliate workshops around the country today, the international organization reached the milestone of 50,000 PETs this year.
Mel West is a 91-year-old pastor and an antipoverty activist. In 1994, he met Larry Hills, a Methodist missionary who told West about polio and land mine survivors he was helping aide in Zaire, Africa.
“As we parted he said, ‘Mel, I need one more thing,’” West said. “’A three wheeled, hand-cranked, sturdily built wheelchair with hauling capacity that will go on those rough trails and roads over in Zaire.’”
West partnered with friend and product designer Earl Miner and after months of work in West’s garage, they sent four prototypes to be tested in Zaire. The success of these models led to the founding of the PET project in Columbia. Today, PET International oversees 26 affiliate workshops in the United States and has distributed PETs in over 100 countries. West said it’s difficult to believe his small project has now built 50,000 PETs.
“To see people who have been crawling on the ground, some of them forty and forty five years, and see them get up and get on one of these PETs, looking people in the eye and not looking at their shoelaces, it gives them a whole new life and gives their family a whole new life,” West said.
PETs are all assembled by volunteers and West said many of the parts and materials used to build PETs are donated as well. Gary Moreau volunteered at PET Columbia for seven years before taking over for West as Executive Director in 2013.
“We’re working on a special load right now that’s going to India, which is going to be all the small version which is appropriate for children,” Moreau said. “There’s going to be 270 children in India that are going to get PETs for the first time and have some mobility.”
PETs come in a child size, an adult size and a Pull PET model for people who do not have upper body strength or coordination. These devices allow for mobility on rough terrain that most standard wheelchairs cannot provide. West said that in many countries, people who cannot walk are often labeled as outcasts and kept in their homes, only able to leave when carried by a family member.
Moreau says 50,000 PETs built nationwide is an exciting milestone, however there is still much work to be done.
“The world estimate is 20 million to 30 million people actually crawl on the ground based on some type of disability, so our target this year will be 1,500 PETs built in Columbia and we’re on target for that,” Moreau said.
PETs cost $300 to build, and West says the Columbia affiliate is always looking for warehouse volunteers who want to make a difference in the world.