Rotary's first all-wheelchair GSE teams, from districts 9680 (New South Wales, Australia) and 5490 (Arizona, USA), meet with New South Wales Governor Marie Bashir and her husband, Sir Nicholas Shehadie (standing, center). At far left (standing) is Tony Castley, at far right, Harold Sharp. Photo by Mark Wallace
For 33-year-old Robb Martin, the 2009 Group Study Exchange between Rotary districts 5490 (Arizona, USA) and 9680 (New South Wales, Australia) offered more than the opportunity to compete in a sailboat race, summit a mountain, and meet with other law enforcement officers.
It was also a once-in-a-lifetime chance to participate in Rotary’s first-ever all-wheelchair GSE.
A former patrol officer from Prescott, Arizona, Martin became paralyzed from the chest down following a 2005 vehicle accident, but continues to work for the police department in the dispatch center.
"The whole point [of the GSE] was to dissolve the perception of people in wheelchairs," Martin explains. "Just because we’re in wheelchairs doesn’t mean that we can’t do things that able-bodied people can do."
The idea for an all-wheelchair GSE started two years ago when Charlie Tegarden, 2008-09 governor of District 5490, struck up a conversation with Darol Kubacz in an airport. The two were returning from Mexico where they had helped distribute wheelchairs to the needy as part of a Rotary project. Kubacz, a wheelchair user, was curious to learn more about Rotary, and Tegarden was happy to oblige.
"Eventually, the conversation turned to Group Study Exchange," Tegarden recalls. "As I was talking about how great GSE was, I was thinking to myself that it was too bad that a person like [Kubacz] could not participate. How could he possibly travel? … Then the obvious struck me -- he was sitting right there with me in the Mexico City airport! Why couldn’t he participate in a GSE?"
Determined to host an all-wheelchair GSE, Tegarden found a partner in Tony Castley, 2008-09 governor of District 9680, whom he met at the 2007 RI Convention in Salt Lake City, Utah. Past district governors Harold Sharp (9680) and Don Schiller (5490) coordinated the exchange, and the idea became reality. Kubacz, now a member of the Rotary Club of Phoenix-West, served as the Arizona team leader.
Some Rotarians were initially a little uneasy about an all-wheelchair GSE because of a perception that disabled people "are either subnormal or unable to live and travel independently and hold down full-time, worthwhile employment," says Sharp, a member of the Rotary Club of Crows Nest, New South Wales, and the GSE’s cochair. "As a result of the exchange, the attitude in our district has totally changed."
Sharp, who is retired from a career in nonprofit management, counts himself in that group. "Though I have for many years been involved with people with disabilities, the wheelchair GSE allowed me to become very involved on a day-to-day basis. It was only then that I realized that I was totally underestimating [disabled people’s] abilities and desire to be judged on their results and not their appearances."
In Arizona, "we've opened the door now to people with disabilities," says Schiller, a member of the Rotary Club of Prescott-Sunup and the district's GSE chair. "We might not do another all-wheelchair GSE, but I can see disabled people participating in our next GSE, just like anyone else."
As for Martin, he's considering joining the Prescott-Sunup club.
"As a police officer, I was able to serve the community, and that was very fulfilling to me," Martin says. "Now, I have found a way to fill that void and still get out there and help the community.
"I'd like to be a team leader in a future GSE."
Written for Reconnections