My first hero, or more accurately group of heroines are Chaeli Mycroft, her sister Erin and her friends Justine, Tarryn and Chelsea Terry. Chaeli is thirteen years old. At eleven months, she was diagnosed as being cerebral palsied. Shortly after her sixth birthday, the doctors discovered that she also has a degenerative neuropathy – her muscles were wasting away. Chaeli’s arms and legs are almost entirely paralysed, her hands draw inwards, her muscles have wasted away and atrophied, her spine doesn’t support her.
It was Chaeli’s good fortune to be born into a remarkable family. From early childhood her mother and father instilled in Chaeli the belief that she could do anything an able-bodied child could do, she just had to do it differently. Her playmates were kids who could walk, but there were always three primary rules – don’t leave Chaeli alone, change the game so that she can also take part, find a way of making it work.
Chaeli was bound to a wheelchair and inevitably there were accidents, but the attitude of the Mycrofts was Chaeli’s life was to be lived to the full. She would not be wrapped in cottonwool and stuck in a corner. Whatever the consequences.
Things were, therefore, rather tough for Chaeli’s wheelchair because she always travelled the direct route, and went wherever she pleased. The spokes and sprockets of the wheels had an above-average rate of wear and tear.
February 2004 will always remain a memorable month for the Mycroft family. On a warm summer’s day Chaeli and her mom called around at a wheelchair dealer to arrange for a new wheel, the existing one having suffered one bump too many. It was here that Chaeli first experienced a remarkable motorised wheelchair. Chaeli wanted one. Badly. She pleaded with her mother all the way home, but with a price-tag of R20,000 the freedom she so longed for seem unreachable
The Chaeli Campaign was born when Chaeli, her sister and her friends started by pounding pavements selling home-made greeting cards, and raised a R20,000 in two weeks , determined that she should have the wheelchair and the freedom she desired.
But Chaeli, her four friends and their parents, would not stop at one wheelchair. There were other children out there whose lives could be lifted into the clouds, if only the money could be found to give them their own wheels.
The second wheelchair acquired by them was for Vanessa, a tiny spina bifida child with blonde hair and an angelic face. Vanessa had no wheelchair at all – her parents couldn’t afford one. The Chaeli Campaign raised the money within weeks, selling sunshine pots and greeting cards, collecting donations and involving one of the local schools in the fundraising drive. By now they had taken the campaign to other neighbourhoods, sending out letters of appeal and order forms to whomever they could think of. The campaign was gathering momentum like an ocean wave, slowly and gradually moving upward and pushing forwards, reaching out and touching people.
The next growth idea was to challenge individual schools to get involved in finding the money to buy a wheelchair, or other assistive device, for a specific child. The Chaeli Campaign identifies a disabled child in need of a wheelchair or some other assistive device, and then arranges to give a presentation at a specific school. Not one of the schools has failed to rise to the challenge. Some raise the cash by selling Chaeli products. Others undertake specific projects – plant sales, concerts, fundraising events. So far, The Chaeli Campaign has roped in about forty schools, and that number keeps on growing. Schools all over the country – in Johannesburg, Bloemfontein, Grahamstown, Pretoria, as well as in the rural area of Chinhoyi, in Zimbabwe, an area where poverty and disease and hunger are tragically real
These are some of the stories of lives touched by The Chaeli Campaign, but there are dozens of others, every one of them unique and moving. I could take up many pages telling you about Ricardo, Amy, Nicky, Byron, Xola, Zebulon and the others, and about the light in their lives which wasn’t there before – a candle which would not have been lit, were it not for The Chaeli Campaign.
The Chaeli Campaign has since become far more than an organisation that raises funds for wheelchairs and assistive devices. There’s the Mobilising the Body side of the Campaign, which pays the salary of six physios, occupational therapist and caregivers who work at the Care Centres in Ocean View and Masiphumelele, to economically downtrodden black neighbourhoods. There are over thirty children from Ocean View and Masiphumelele at the Sinethemba Special Care Centre and there’s a growing waiting list.
Chaeli and Erin and the Terry sisters dropped a stone into the water. They never dreamed that its ripples would lead to hundreds of disabled children being given assistive devices, to pupils at Bergvliet High forming a duty roster to help a disabled classmate up the stairs, to Mjaimbo knocking on the doors of Masiphumelele shacks to spread light, to the involvement of the physio and occupational therapists at the Care Centres, in mobilising the bodies and minds of little people on whose shoulders life has placed a seemingly impossible burden, to unemployable adults learning new vocational skills in the Chaeli Coffee Shop.
One stone. Many ripples. That, you can be sure, is the process that will continue.
For details on how to donate or get involved with a truely inspiration cause and band of people, please visit samesamebutdifferent.co.za or follow @chaelicampaign on twitter or Chaeli Campaign on Facebook.