Wheelchairs by Angola inmates bring freedom to those in need in Cuba
UPDATED 7:20 PM CDT May 15, 2015
HAVANAH, Cuba —Publicly at odds diplomatically for more than 50 years,
the people of the U.S. and Cuba have kept lines of communication open.
Certainly there have been back channel discussions between governments,
but the efforts of faith-based and humanitarian groups have been far
Louisiana plays a key role in those efforts. Under the humanitarian
banner, Louisiana rice and poultry have helped feed Cuba for years. And
then there is an unlikely collaboration rooted in Louisiana, that has
been sewing the seeds of freedom in Cuba for years.
This remarkably successful partnership thrives among a group of people
who will likely never meet face to face.
Freedom for those imprisoned by their inability to walk comes from a
wheelchair, but the vast majority of those that need them, especially in
Cuba, have difficulty getting them.
But wheelchairs can also mean freedom for a different group of
prisoners. It is a story that begins at the gates of the Louisiana State
Penitentiary in Angola and ends on the streets of Havana.
"We have problems to acquire these kind of things in Cuba," said Michael
Perez, with the Cuban Association of People with Disability.
Confined to a wheel chair since a swimming accident when he was 16 years
old, Perez works with those with special needs from the association's
headquarters in a quiet Havana neighborhood. The group works to provide
help and equipment to those in need.
It is the same goal of another group nearly 700 miles away.
"A lot of people are dragged on blankets, or they're carried because
they don't have wheelchairs in third world countries," points out Angola
Warden Burl Cain. "So they are giving freedom to some one which is what
they don't have here."
Cain talked about a group of dedicated inmates at the Louisiana State
Penitentiary as they load a huge truck with wheelchairs of all sizes,
wheelchairs that they themselves had rebuilt and refurbished. The effort
is a partnership with an organization called Joni and Friends Wheels for
the World. They've collected 34,000 wheelchairs nationwide.
Angola is one of 17 correctional facilities across the country that
rehabs the chairs, each providing a measure of physical rehabilitation
to someone far away, and coming from a person going through some moral
Like Aaron Lampton, who is serving 66 years for armed robbery.
"When you are giving back to somebody, when all you did your whole life
was take, take, take, so much, and now you are giving back so it makes
you feel good," he said.
The February shipment was bound for Cuba, a country in the headlines
often recently, still in need of humanitarian aid. Some 220 wheelchairs,
some for adults, some for children, filled the 18 wheeler. Each chair
painstakingly rebuilt in the prison shop by a group of dedicated
craftsmen, all doing time for crimes committed on the outside.
Back in Havana, Maria de los Angeles directs the Cuban Association of
People with Disability from a pair of crutches. Like everyone else who
works in the office, she deals with disability, having only one leg. The
wheelchairs from America, Joni and Friends and the prisoners at Angola
touch her deeply.
"I want to send a small message, but very special to those people that
are in prison they've repaired those chairs, so Cuba benefits from it.
It's so human," de los Angeles said.
The chairs from Angola arrived last month, immediately delivered to
those who need them, fitted to their unique size and challenge.
"When you see a smile in a child, in a family, or tears or just the
satisfaction of the family, there's no word to describe what we feel
when you give a wheelchair. It's something very special," de los
Freedom comes in many forms, but none greater than the heart finally
free to take flight on its own. Joni and Friend Wheels for the World
delivers the work and passion of the Angola inmates.
A gift of freedom to others and themselves.
Doing life in prison for murder, Alvin Smith tries to give back to
society by working on the wheelchairs.
"Now they can move, see something of life besides being in a room where
they are all the time," said Smith, expressing a sentiment shared by the
people in Havana.
Moved by the gift, Michael Perez said, "That's a very touching thing,
because it's very human, very sensitive. This effort, this work,
delivered to other people that need it. That's very thoughtful."
And de los Angeles is simply grateful.
"I thank them from the bottom of her heart, that the Cuban families are
very, very pleased," she said.
Source: Wheelchairs by Angola inmates bring freedom to those in need in
Cuba | New Orleans - WDSU Home -