The miracle of mobility
Inland Northwest PET Project provides wheels, dignity to Third World’s disabled
On a gray Monday in February, retired Spokane attorney Dick Carpenter arrived at the headquarters of the Inland Northwest PET Project – a shop perched on a hillside in Colbert’s Little Spokane River Valley.
By the time Carpenter went home, he and his friends had filled another FedEx semitruck with 50 Personal Energy Transporters to be distributed in Third World countries.
A PET is a hand-pedaled vehicle (a lumber-and-steel cross between a tricycle and a SmartCar) made for people who don’t have use of their legs – those whose poverty is caused or deepened by an inability to rise from the ground.
“PETs get people out of the dirt and into dignity,” Carpenter said.
Serving victims of land mines, accidents, diseases, animal bites and birth defects, the vehicles fill several voids at once.
Their sturdy parts and solid-core rubber wheels provide transportation in terrain where a wheelchair wouldn’t last long. But a PET represents far more than getting around; Carpenter reports that many who receive them are able to start vending businesses, earning income as street merchants instead of through begging.
The story of “Chief PET Logistician” Carpenter and the Inland Northwest PET Project is also one of filling voids.
For the core members of the group, the project fills a void of time and purpose many experience during retirement.
“I need to be busy,” said Harvey Lochhead, a former high school math teacher. “I’ve never been one to sit on my hind-side and do nothing – and I do that way more than I like to now.”
The PET project, he said, “fulfills a need for me to do something … worthwhile.”
Lochhead contributes woodworking and upholstery, which he does at home and at his own pace. On Monday and Thursday mornings, he and several others bring the fruits of their labor to the shop for fine-tuning, assembly and packing.
Maurice Feryn, a retired engineer, is the “Put Together Man.” He spends his time on sub-assembly, perfecting the complexities of the PET’s unique chain system and metal work.
Retired radiologist Lyle Crecelius provides the facility itself, and assembles the vehicles along with several other “PET Kin” – the nickname Carpenter uses for those who are a part of the group.
It’s not just a men’s club. Carol Rasor, a PET assembly expert, is the lone female member of the crew.
On the day of the shipment, Carpenter walked around the shop, taking a visual inventory of PET parts and making phone calls to various businesses and individuals who each provide a small part or service.
Though remarkably soft-spoken, he wore a jacket with the words “Be Bold” embroidered over his heart. He embodies this motto, taken from Scripture, in a very unassuming way.
But following Carpenter around the shop, it becomes clear: It does take a certain boldness to orchestrate a complex community organization involving more than 100 people.
In order for PETs to be produced at their current rate – a truckload of 50 every four months – each member of the community must follow through, and Carpenter must continually develop new relationships to meet the needs that arise.
“I don’t mind asking companies and people for help,” he said. “There’s nothing to worry about. If they say ‘no,’ then I just leave. If they say ‘yes,’ well, then we build a relationship.”
Aside from the need for charitable giving, businesses contain small voids in time or space. Carpenter has a knack for finding these voids and boldly asking business owners to use them for the PET project.
For instance, two local fabrication shops produce PET parts when they see a hole in their shop schedule. Another shop powder-coats the metal for free during its extra time.
When a trucking company in Alaska has cubic feet of extra space on a truck to Seattle, Carpenter has arranged for PET parts to fill that space for free. Soon, a different trucking company has extra space on a truck bound for Spokane, and the PET part from Alaska has made an unlikely, and efficient, journey.
To solve the problem of how to press the sturdy rubber tires into their rims, Carpenter tracked down two engineers, who designed and built a custom press for the job. He also found a source to reclaim lumber, to use scraps of wood that might otherwise be wasted.
To listen to Carpenter recount these examples is like attending a course in organizational leadership, but he shrugs off any recognition of his abilities. To him, the complexity of the project is simple. He’s just being bold.
The greatest challenge the Inland Northwest PET Project faces is that of failing health. Motioning around the shop at the core members, Carpenter put it bluntly: “Most of us have almost died at some point.”
After a couple of hours that Monday, Lochhead bowed out due to a lack of energy. He is a survivor of two open heart surgeries and six angioplasty procedures.
Feryn, the “Put-Together Man,” has undergone brain surgery. Crecelius is still active, but has recently battled a difficult nerve disease.
While their own bodies fail them, sometimes keeping them out of the shop for weeks at a time, the project moves forward – addressing the health problems of disabled people in remote countries.
Carpenter’s own journey is one of both physical and spiritual recovery.
“As a combat trainer in Vietnam, I trained people how to blow other people up,” he said quietly, under the din of the shop’s activities. Today, he openly shares the knowledge that there are roughly 200 million land mines planted in our earth.
When he retired from the military in the 1980s, he practiced law for 13 years in Spokane, founding Carpenter Consulting Associates. But his success didn’t remove him from the effects of war.
In Vietnam, he’d been sprayed with Agent Orange, a cancer-causing defoliant. In the late ’90s, he retired when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The battle with cancer and other complications lasted several years.
“I became septic,” said Carpenter. “My kidneys failed. I underwent chemotherapy and radiation. But right now, I’m as healthy as I have been since ’98.”
When his health began this rebound in 2004, he came across an organization that caught his eye.
“I read this little paragraph in the Spokesman about PET International, and it hit my heart,” he recalled. “A week later, I found myself in Jacksonville, Florida, learning how to build PETs and a PET organization.”
Carpenter was struck by the quality of the product, and drawn in by its redemptive nature, because of his role in Vietnam. PET International fell perfectly in line with his Christian faith, which he began at age 33, so he organized a handful of retired friends from Whitworth Community Presbyterian Church.
Four years later, the Inland Northwest PET Project is an efficient movement of people and organizations, both secular and faith-based, engaged toward a common purpose. The February shipment brought their total number of PETs shipped to 365 – a life impacted and a void filled for every day of the year.
After helping the FedEx semitruck get unstuck from the snow, the PET Kin celebrated with a modest pizza party in the shop, furnished by yet another local business connection. They stood around work tables, laughing and visiting quietly.
There was improvement to celebrate as well. “A batch of 50 PETs used to take six months when we started,” Carpenter said. “Now we do it in four.”
A subtle restlessness pervaded the room. It seemed the group was glad to celebrate the milestone, but anxious to get another batch of 50 on the road.
The friendships within the organization are deep and meaningful, but unlike some volunteer opportunities for seniors, production and efficiency is a major priority. At the pizza party, the conversations shifted from social to strategic, and some current needs came to the surface.
“Money goes without saying, but we need more friends who can do little jobs at home, and then bring their product in for assembly,” Carpenter said.
“We need skilled welders especially. And a webmaster,” he hinted. “Everything helps.”
Potential volunteers can find the Inland Northwest PET Project at www.petspokane.org, or reach Dick Carpenter directly at (509) 466-3425.