Service above self: Desert Mountain student joins group traveling to Kenya to distribute mobility devices

Cassidy Johnson, a junior at Desert Mountain High School, speaking at a recent meeting of the Rotary Club of Scottsdale. (Special to the Independent).

Most high school students spend their summer vacations traveling with family, making a few bucks working a part-time job or simply enjoying a few months of leisure around the pool.

But one Scottsdale teen will be traveling half-way around the world and sacrificing luxury and comfort to partake in a service project assisting some of the planet’s poorest and most neglected citizens.

Cassidy Johnson, a junior at Desert Mountain High School, is one of only six students throughout the state chosen to represent Arizona Rotary Interact District 5495 in its Crutches4Africa trip to Kenya this July.

The Interact group will work with local Rotary clubs in Africa to distribute thousands of mobility devices to those in need.

Working with the Denver-based nonprofit Crutches4Africa, the group has been collecting donations throughout the year — crutches, wheelchairs, walkers, canes and more — and storing them at American Furniture Warehouse in Glendale.

A sample of some of the thousands of mobility devices collected Arizona Interact students and stored throughout the year at American Family Warehouse. (Bret McKeand/Independent Newsmedia)

The collection of devices filling several cargo containers is already making its way to Africa. The Arizona group will travel to Kenya July 1 and spend two weeks visiting remote towns and rural villages to disburse the items.

It’s not the way most high school teens envisage their summer vacation. For Cassidy, who has never even spent a night in a tent, the inconveniences are minor compared to the experiences she’ll gain — as well as the opportunity of changing someone’s life.

“I am so fortunate to have been selected for this incredible opportunity to represent Interact, Rotary, and Arizona in Kenya,” said Cassidy.

“As ambassadors, we are granting those who have been crippled by disabilities to gain the freedom of mobility. I am very optimistic about our success in distribution, and thrilled about the impact that Rotary and Interact are having around the world.”

Cassidy was introduced to Rotary earlier year when she attended a Rotary-sponsored youth-leadership camp. She quickly became enamored with the worldwide organization’s “people of action” mission and joined her school’s Interact Club (a high-school version of Rotary).

She was introduced to the Crutches4Africa project at the Interact District Conference. She decided on the spot to apply to be one of six ambassadors going to Kenya.

“I was fascinated with Crutches4Africa, but I really didn’t think I had a shot (at being selected),” recalled Cassidy.

Interact Clubs of Rotary District 5495, covering the northern two-thirds of Arizona, have been recruiting applicants to go to Kenya for the past three years through presentations made at high schools, at Interact District conferences, and at Interact Clubs in high schools and communities.

Interactors interested in serving as one of six advisors to travel to Kenya submitted applications that included their accomplishments in community and world service as well as leadership positions in school and other organizations.

Six were chosen after a rigorous process of reviewing applications and interviews.

“I remember getting ready for school when I received the email telling me I was chosen. I remember driving to school, holding the wheel and shaking. I didn’t know what to do with myself,” she said.

“I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.”

Most of those receiving devices in Kenya are extremely poor, and victims of polio or some sort of birth defect. They are community’s outcasts, the “forgotten people,” said Cassidy.

“They are treated as second-class citizens and treated so poorly,” said Cassidy.

“They start out crawling, but they really light up when you give them their mobility device. For many, it’s the very first time they’ve ever gotten off the ground or walked unassisted.”

Cassidy and her fellow ambassadors haven’t much time to prepare for the trip. The ambassador team meets bi-weekly to discuss expectations and review guidelines.

“These meetings are extremely important because we are able to get to know one another before embarking on a two-week vacation in which we will be more like a family than strangers,” said Cassidy.

The ambassadors have also been working diligently to raise $25,000 for the trip to Kenya. The $25,000 will go toward student flights, in-country expenses, and the large sum it costs to ship the containers of devices to Kenya.

Five adult “advisors” will accompany the students, including John Wintersteen, a resident and former chief of police of the Town of Paradise Valley, and long-time Rotarian.

Mr. Wintersteen has been on the trip before and knows what sort of experience the students can expect.

“Each time an Interactor presents and fits a device to a recipient, there is a heartwarming, one-to-one contact,” said Mr. Wintersteen.

“Reactions by recipients run the gamut of appreciation, from seeing them move around for the first time in their lives under their own power, to recipients who chant and sing in appreciation. Tears — by both the recipient and by the Interactor — are common.”

Interact Ambassadors traveling to Kenya in July to distribute mobility devices are Cassidy Johnson, Hannah Mason, Sandra Franco, Matthew Syms, Jaiden Gatson and Kara Austin. Advisors include John Wintersteen, Marla Lazere, Steve Lazere, Ron Williams and Lauren Lukas. Mr. Wintersteen is in the second row, far left. Miss Johnson is in the center, second row. (Special to the Independent)

Mr. Wintersteen said many of the recipients have never walked in their lives — most crawl on hands and knees, or scuttle backward on pieces of cardboard, or are carried in the arms of family members or moved around on field wheelbarrows.

Children are often kept hidden in their homes because there is a stigma attached to their condition, and too heavy to be carried anywhere, but with a wheelchair they are usually given the opportunity to meet other people.

The group will spend its first night in Nairobi, then immediately depart for Naivasha to begin mobility device distribution in neighboring villages.

Students will be home-hosted by Naivasha Rotarians for the majority of their stay in Kenya. The local clubs in Africa also serve as interpreters.

“This home-hosting is extremely exciting to me because it presents a unique opportunity to experience the lifestyle and culture of the Kenyan people,” said Cassidy.

The ambassadors team will divide into two groups, each distributing devices in different villages to ensure efficiency in distribution. After being home-hosted in Naivasha, the team will spend two to three nights at the Prescott College campus on the Maasai Mara Game Preserve.

While on the Maasai Mara, students will camp in tents and spend their days distributing devices to the local Maasai people.

“I have never been camping, and I am thrilled to have my first experience in such a beautiful and ecologically diverse environment,” said Cassidy.

Time not spent distributing mobility devices will be spent on additional service projects, interacting with locals, attending Rotary/Interact meetings, and distributing medical supplies, school supplies, and children’s’ clothing.

Learning about the cultures and customs has been a rewarding experience for Cassidy.

“The Maasai are one of the most culturally preserved people in Africa. They are known for their warriors and are highly patriarchal,” said Cassidy.

“We’ve been told females must shake the hands of another female first before shaking the hand of a male. And it’s not uncommon to see people holding hands. Men hold hands with other men,” she said.

“Oh, and we’ve also been told not to touch the animals!”

Cassidy will serve as president of the Desert Mountain Interact Club in 2019-20.

She is involved in a variety of other clubs, including National Honors Society, Science National Honors Society, Spanish National Honors Society, Physics Club, Equaliteens, and March for Our Lives.

Mr. Wintersteen said 100 Interact Clubs throughout Arizona canvassed their communities for used mobility devices, and collected them at schools and churches.

The devices were taken to the Interact District Conference in February, where they were sorted, inspected, shrink-wrapped and prepared for shipment to Kenya.

For the 2018-19 drive, enough personal mobility devices were collected to fill a 40-foot and a 20-foot shipping container. The devices continue to be collected year-round, and will be shipped to other African nations.

The Crutches4Africa project was started by David and Candace Talbot of Denver. Mr. Talbot is himself a polio survivor.

“While in Uganda in 2005 I saw people who had survived the disease of polio. Often they are rejected in their communities,” Mr. Talbot said.

“Back in the United States, I realized that many people have a lightly-used and no-longer-needed mobility device from a twisted ankle, ski accident, or operation. I saw crutches at garage sales, in dumpsters, and unfortunately in roll-off containers headed to landfills.

“I knew that I had to do something; this was the genesis of Crutches4Africa.”

Editor’s note: To find out more about Crutches4Africa, visit rotaryazinteract.org/crutches4africa. Watch for regular African Diaries articles from Cassidy this July on ScottsdaleIndependent.com, detailing her experience while in Kenya.

Bret McKeand is senior executive editor of Independent Newsmedia Inc. USA.

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