By Mary Grace Padin
FOR Swiss national Margaretha Gloor, mainstreaming of persons with disabilities (PWDs) in the Philippines is a tough challenge due to the limited jobs, educational institutions and physical mobility available to them.
Gloor, founder and president of Circle of Friends Foundation Inc. (Coffi), said it all starts with mobility. She believes in the talent and self-reliance of PWDs, but emphasizes they should be given a chance to go to places through accessible transportation for them to be more active in the society.
Believing in the talent and capacity of PWDs to be independent, she established the Wheelmobile in 2003, the first transport service in the Philippines for people in wheelchairs.
“It is not fun in the Philippines if you are in a wheelchair. People need to be aware that people in wheelchair also need accessible transportation,” Gloor said.
Gloor has been in the Philippines since 1978 with her husband, who handled Zuellig Pharmaceuticals Inc. for almost 20 years.
Tahanang Walang Hagdanan
In 1987 she met Belgian nun and founder of Tahanang Walang Hagdanan Sis. Maria Paula Valeriana Baerts. She then became active in helping the foundation in developing products, such as bags, paintings and wood handicrafts.
In 1997 Gloor organized a fund-raiser for Tahanang Walang Hagdanan to build a woodwork training center for the disabled beneficiaries. It was quite successful, Gloor said, but the land and building where they were supposed to construct the center on was then claimed by the church.
“The land belonged to the church. They were even going to kick Tahanang Walang Hagdanan, but we begged them so we can keep it. In the end, they got half of the land,” Gloor recounted.
Money collected from the fund-raiser could not be used for the training center anymore, but it also could not be wasted and could not be used for personal gains. Gloor consulted with her husband’s lawyers and was told the only thing to do was to set up a foundation.
However, the idea for the Wheelmobile only came years later, when Gloor saw the Tixie Taxi transport service in her hometown in Switzerland.
“My eyes were opened in a different way. There are vehicles with ramps in other countries. Here in the Philippines, there is no transportation for PWDs,” Gloor said.
Through the Zuellig Family Foundation and their fund-raising golf tournament, Gloor was able to gather enough money to buy materials and hire contractors for the construction of the Wheelmobile.
The first-ever Wheelmobile was launched in 2003. Now, Coffi has a total of four Wheelmobiles operating in Metro Manila.
The Wheelmobiles have a dashing yellow design, each equipped with ramps and flooring rails. Passengers on wheelchair can be secured and locked through shoulder belts.
The vehicles also have big windows to provide a panoramic view for the passengers. Seats for caregivers are provided in front of the vehicles. In total, the Wheelmobiles have room for six to eight people each.
Gloor is planning to build a new generation of Wheelmobiles. She said they are just waiting for the design and specifications of the new batch.
“We are very eager to build the new generation of Wheelmobiles. Once we have the design, we are going to visit companies and present what we have. We are moving forward,” Gloor said.
Older people, pregnant women and people who have just undergone surgery can also board the Wheelmobile.
Aside from the Wheelmobile, Coffi also gets its funds from bags, cards, paintings and handicrafts done by disabled people from Tahanang Walang Hagdanan.
Their wooden miniature jeepneys are of good quality and great inspiration that they can even be found in a major store chain in the country. These miniature jeepneys are purely handmade and intricately designed with colorful paintings of various objects that represent the Filipino culture. Each jeepney is stamped and signed by its artist.
The challenge of the future
Gloor is very enthusiastic about future opportunities their business could bring.
“We have also tried with other companies. Also, we still have hotels and organizations who know about us,” she said.
Coffi also has a gallery at the Greenhills Shopping Center in San Juan. Gloor said the space for the gallery was given to them, as well as four parking spaces dedicated to the organization.
“We need to focus again on the gallery. We should have more activities and art classes,” she said.
Despite all the efforts Coffi is making to reach out to the disabled people, Gloor sadly said the awareness about the needs of PWDs are just not here in the Philippines yet.
“It’s a daily struggle to survive, but we are getting there. Evolution takes time,” she said.
Coffi is advertising as much as they can. They also have different efforts, such as television appearances, interviews and exhibitions with emphasis on the importance of networking to create the awareness that PWDs have needs and are capable of becoming assets to the community.
Another challenge the organization is facing is the lack of volunteers and personnel, along with the need to set up an active board.
There may be a lot of challenges that come along the way, but Gloor still continues to face each day with unequaled energy, high spirits and positive outlook.
Gloor said they have been lucky enough to have the continuous support from a circle of friends who believe in the work they do.
Image credits: Jimbo Albano