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Cart Program Gives Rural Disabled New Opportunities

Jeannine Cawthon, a Gainesville native, paints the body of a PET cart on Thursday morning.
Jeannine Cawthon, a Gainesville native, paints the body of a PET cart on Thursday morning.

Seun Oke, pronounced Shay-oon Oak, was 8 years old when she permanently lost use of her legs.

She was in fourth grade when diagnosed with polio in her hometown in Nigeria.

“My parents always carried me to school and they used to bag (piggy-back) me at times,” she told a crowded room of volunteers at Penney Farms. “But most of times, I was on the ground crawling.”

The 27-year-old is part of a much larger community of people who have lost use of their limbs – people who have been labeled as “diseased” or “disabled” and consequently shunned by the rest of their rural communities.

PET International, an organization headquartered in Columbus, Missouri, has made it its mission to give these individuals “the gift of mobility.”

This “gift” comes in the form of a brightly colored hand-cranked cart, simply described as a wheelchair for places where wheelchairs can’t go.

The Personal Energy Transportation cart resembles a wooden wheelbarrow turned tricycle, with a seat at one end supported by two wheels and a third wheel in the front. Handles extending from the cart’s front wheel give the rider full control over its motion.

Turning the handles in a clockwise motion moves the cart forward, and moving the handles from side to side changes its direction.

With solid wheels and a sturdy wooden frame, the carts are made to last a long time on the rural grounds of developing countries. It takes a $250 donation to build and distribute a PET cart overseas, but they are given to people at no cost.

Twenty-three PET production sites, three of which are in Florida, are run by hundreds of volunteers across 13 different states.

Oke spoke at a workshop known as The PET Project at Penney Farms, about an hour northeast of Gainesville, in October when the organization celebrated its 20th anniversary.

Oke, who was able to go to school on her own and now has a local government job, told the volunteers that the PET carts give an individual his or her independence.

“Since the day I got a PET cart, I’m totally free,” she said.

Located within a 500-member retirement community, the PET warehouse sits at the end of a road on a large, grassy field. Inside, different models of PET carts hang from the ceiling. About 10 volunteers are scattered about, each a part of an intricate assembly line that will produce a single cart.

They are people like Sid Rooy, who encountered people who had lost their limbs to explosive land mines during his time teaching in Latin America.

Or the Schmaltzes, a couple from Michigan who spent each winter volunteering at the PET facility until finally moving into the retirement community next door.

Dave Quirk, PET procurement coordinator at the workshop, said the workshop sees about 100 to 120 volunteers.

Quirk said they’ve built more than 7,000 carts since the workshop’s founding in 2001. Between all the production sites, more than 48,000 have been built and distributed to 100 different countries.

“Somebody asked me the other day, ‘Geez, but that many, are you getting to the end? Is the demand going away?’" Quirk said.

“And I said, ‘Well if you can stop polio, if you can stop wars where nobody’s planting war mines, if you can stop diabetes … There are so many reasons why people need a PET,” he said. “And I don’t see it ending any time soon.”

Two women painting in the back of the shop make the drive up from Gainesville once a month. Jeannine Cawthon and Cindy Rohlwing have been volunteering with PET for almost two years now.

Rohlwing recounts her best day at the shop, when she worked on a cart that was going to a specific person she knew of. The mission director at her church had gone to Guatemala and encountered a woman in need, and Quirk arranged for a cart to be sent to her.

“These go all over the world, but to come to work after knowing one particular person in Guatemala got a cart was just the nicest thing,” Rohlwing said. “Everybody was so excited because that’s what everybody works for, and it just really brings them home when you have that one individual that you have a connection to.”

When asked what her favorite part of working at the shop is, Rohlwing’s response matched the others'.

“It’s just been so wonderful to meet the people that work here. The volunteers that work in Penney Farms -- a lot of them are retired missionaries," Rohlwing said. "Most of them have spent their life in service, and they are fascinating because they’ve lived all over the world.”

Two new volunteers walk in as Quirk recounts the workshop’s history.

“We’re new here!” the two men say in unison.

Quirk looks up at them from the PET cart he’s sitting on and smiles.

“Come when you can, leave when you must,” Quirk says.

Carla is a reporter for WUFT News and can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing