Thanks to a small Spokane nonprofit, 1,220 people in 95 countries have received the gift of mobility.
Since 2005, Inland Northwest PET Project has been creating and distributing Personal Energy Transporters from a hillside shop in Colbert.
A PET is a hand-pedaled vehicle made of lumber and steel. The sturdy parts and solid-core rubber wheels provide transportation in terrain that would prove difficult for traditional wheelchairs to navigate.
Dick Carpenter, 72, founded Inland Northwest PET Project after reading a blurb about the international organization in the newspaper.
“I had cancer and lost my law practice,” the retired attorney said. He glanced around the bustling shop. “God gave me this.”
The motto of the organization, “Lifting people out of the dirt into a life of dignity and hope,” appealed to Carpenter. And when he discovered that many of the PETs go to victims of land mines, he found he’d come full circle. Carpenter is a Vietnam veteran who used to train soldiers in the use of land mines.
Pictures and testimonials from PET recipients dot the walls of the shop. “Every one of these people has a story,” Carpenter said. “And we want to hear them.”
He pointed to a photo of Ernesto, a Guatemalan man who contracted polio at age 7. Forced to crawl for 37 years, Ernesto found new life when he received a PET. He built a traveling snack shop on his sturdy vehicle and is now a proud entrepreneur. It’s those stories that keep the 40-plus volunteers Carpenter has dubbed PET-kin coming back.
The bright colors of the PETs in various stages of construction catch the eye. The Spokane shop is the only place in the world where Rainbow PETs are built. No two boards are painted alike, and an eagle stencil adorns the backrest of each device.
Carpenter proudly pointed to PET No. 1,000 – a red, white and blue star-spangled beauty that’s ready for shipping. “Bright and cheerful is our theme,” he said.
While the sub-assembly and packing take place at the shop, many of the volunteers work on their contributions at home.
Harvey Lochhead upholsters the seats at home but enjoys catching up with his fellow volunteers when he delivers them.
“This meets needs I have and meets the needs of a lot other people,” he said, referring to his desire to stay active during retirement years.
Volunteers’ contributions are varied. “We have a 90-year-old lady who paints for us,” Carpenter said.
She’s also donated dozens of stuffed animals that are packed with many PET shipments. Depending on destination, products are packed heavy or light. Boxes packed heavy are filled with clothing, magazines, stuffed animals and things citizens of Third World countries find useful, like wire hangers and pill bottles.
When Carpenter ran into a former girlfriend at a high school reunion, she wanted to help, too. “She knits,” he said. He held up a soft wool cap. “She’s probably sent a couple thousand of these at least.”
Every PET is shipped with the tools and instructions needed for assembly, operator instructions and a small New Testament donated by Gideon’s International.
“We ship out every two or three months,” Carpenter said. The PETs go to several triage points, like MedShare in California, and are then sent overseas. Recently, Inland Northwest PET sent 17 vehicles to the U.S. Navy humanitarian effort Project Handclasp. The Navy distributed those PETs in Nigeria.
Retired engineer Maurice Feryn oversees the sub-assembly operations and helped perfect the PET’s unique chain system. He tears up when he thinks about the outcome of their efforts.
“When I think about how easy it is for me to get in my car and drive up here,” he said, then paused. “And then I think about the people who get these – how one PET can change a person’s life.”
While committed volunteers like Feryn donate their time, the materials needed to craft these vehicles are not cheap.
Local fabrication shops that used to donate steel have backed off. With the steel, wood and other materials, each vehicle costs $250 to build and ship.
Carpenter is blunt. “People can donate lumber or steel, but cash keeps the wheels turning.”