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10/25/2017 08:30 AM

Stuart Rattray: Living the Mission

Stuart Rattray heads the Board of Directors of Free Wheelchair Mission, a nonprofit that has given more than one million wheelchairs to disabled people in developing nations.Photo by Susan Talpey/The Source

Here on the shoreline, $80 is a dinner at a restaurant or a pair of jeans. For Madison resident Stuart Rattray, $80 has a special value: It buys a brand new wheelchair for a permanently disabled child in a developing nation.

Stuart is the Board of Directors chair of Free Wheelchair Mission, a nonprofit organization that delivers new, specially designed wheelchairs into the hands of physically disabled people in third-world countries.

“It’s life-changing for them and their families. Depending on their age, having a wheelchair can enable them to get an education, to get to work and make a living. Parents with disabled children often carry them from place to place and when their child gets too big to carry, they don’t go to school or interact with their community,” Stuart says.

“It’s the gift of mobility, but more than that, it is the dignity of not having to drag their body on the ground. It’s independence and simply, a better life.”

Free Wheelchair Mission has transformed the lives of more than 1,011,167 people in 93 countries in just 15 years. On Thursday, Nov. 2, Madison Art Cinemas hosts a free screening of Because No One Should Have to Crawl, a documentary detailing the story of the organization and the gift of the one-millionth wheelchair to a 16 year-old girl in Peru. Stuart hopes the Madison community will enjoy the event and the opportunity to learn more about Free Wheelchair Mission.

“The documentary was made by Visionaries, a nonprofit organization in Massachusetts that for the past 22 years has produced documentaries about nonprofits that make a difference,” he says.

The film will be aired on PBS television stations across the U.S. in 2018. Free Wheelchair Mission is hosting screening events in Houston, Seattle, Florida, Arizona, Idaho, California, and—due to Stuart’s connection—here in Madison. Following the screening, Free Wheelchair Mission Founder and President Don Schoendorfer, visiting from California, will host a Q & A session.

“The story of Free Wheelchair Mission really starts with Don,” Stuart says. “He and his wife were traveling in Morocco and saw a disabled woman struggling to drag herself across a busy city street. Don is an exceptional engineer with a PhD from MIT [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology], and that experience drove him to design a wheelchair that was cost effective. He spent a couple of years tinkering in his garage and created a unique prototype.”

Unlike the electric wheelchairs common in the U.S., the new designs were specially created to tackle the rugged terrain of villages in third-world countries; they’re lightweight for pushing yet sturdy with mountain bike wheels and tires for dirt roads. The custom-made frames are designed to be flat packed for shipping and fitted with common parts that are easily replaceable in isolated communities.

“There is no [American Disability Act] compliance in these developing countries. Many people are living in huts or substandard housing with no standard doorways, and there are no ramps. So, the Free Wheelchair Mission chairs have an adjustable fit with adjustable height, length, and width, so they can match any adult and a child as they grow,” Stuart says.

When Schoendorfer had completed the final design, he found a manufacturer in China and the wheelchairs began rolling off the assembly line, flat packed and ready to ship around the world.

That’s where Stuart came in.

“I went to a Mission Sunday at my church in Southern California. I felt I should be doing more outside my career, something that was not about me. My pastor told me about Don’s mission and we connected for the first time and started helping him with my knowledge and understanding of international shipping,” he says.

It was a fortuitous meeting of the minds, as Stuart happened to have decades of professional experience in senior roles at global shipping companies.

“In May 2002, we shipped our first container to Angola, and the next 40-foot container with 550 chairs went to India. It was amazing how it happened. It was not the trade route I had ever worked with, but shipping is a world-wide industry and I was able to connect with the right people to get out initial shipments out for free.”

Stuart’s life journey to Madison was truly a trip around the world. Native to Sussex, England, Stuart found his sea legs early.

“At 16, I joined the British Merchant Marines. I was a navigation officer apprentice and I spent six years with the Marines, at sea earn and college, earning by first mate’s ticket. My final trip I spent 10 months at sea and worked every day. I couldn’t see how I would get married or have a family and I didn’t want to have two parts to my life. So, I left—what they call ‘coming shore.’”

While studying for a B.S. at the University of Plymouth, Stuart met his wife, Maggie, and pursued a career in shipping operations that led the Rattrays to establish homes in New Zealand, Australia, and Hong Kong, before settling in California to raise their two children.

In 2012, Stuart retired and he and Maggie decided to move from their home in Atlanta, Georgia to be close to their daughter and grandsons in Avon. In 2013, they made the move to Madison.

“We have always lived close to the water and struggled in Atlanta being away from the sea,” he says. “We had visited the area and driven through the shoreline towns and we like the ambiance of Madison. We like to hike, kayak, bike ride, walk, and with Hammonasset and the public beaches, it’s all available here. We’ve lived in major cities around the world and we like the small town feel of Madison.”

It’s right here that Stuart has extended his commitment to Free Wheelchair Mission, joining the Board of Directors in 2013 and stepping into the role of chair this year.

“The World Health Organization places the need for wheelchairs in developing countries at 70 million. It’s hard to get the full scope because in some cultures disabled people are hidden away, but we know that the need is great,” he says. “We delivered one million wheelchairs in the first 15 years. Our goal is to deliver the next million chairs by 2025.”

Stuart has also traveled to Nicaragua and Costa Rico to see firsthand the true meaning of the mission.

“It’s popular to say that an experience like this is life-changing, but truly it is,” he says. “To see the absolute joy of a person who is lifted from the ground into their wheelchair for the first time is truly amazing. It reinforces why we do what we do and it’s very motivating.”

On the ground, Free Wheelchair Mission has a broad network of distribution partners to get these life-changing chairs into the hands of people who need them most. The role of the partners is to unload and assemble the chairs, identify local people in need, and train the new owner and their family to use the chair, an experience that’s unique to location and disability.

“In some countries, it’s a major NGO [non-governmental organization] like World Vision, Food for The Poor, Operation Blessing. In other countries, it’s a local Christian organization. In Peru, one of our major receiving countries, it’s a large church,” Stuart says.

“Different countries have different challenges. Many of these countries have diseases that are eradicated in the U.S. and a lack of medical support or treatment. Isolation and poverty may mean that a child has a simple accident and breaks their leg, but it’s not reset properly so they are crippled for the rest of their life. In countries like Angola, people live in war and genocide and may be disabled by land mines or genocide.”

Stuart is pleased to share the story of Free Wheelchair Mission with his new hometown.

“We want to introduce people to Free Wheelchair Mission and share an understanding of this global issue. It’s natural to see the world through our own eyes and our own experiences—we all do—so it’s hard for us to appreciate the extent of the problem,” he says.

“This is the life situation of millions of people in the world and most people don’t know a lot about it. It’s a major tragedy.”

The Free Wheelchair Mission presents a pre-release screening of the documentary Because No One Should Have to Crawl at the Madison Art Cinemas, 761 Boston Post Road, on Thursday, Nov. 2 from 7:15 to 9 p.m. The event is free; reservations are required. For more information, visit