By Jennifer Harris
Word&Way News Writer
Inside a noisy, but remarkably clean shop, 85-year-old Mel West oversees the operations of the PET Project. Five members of First Baptist Church, Columbia, join the “regulars” at the volunteer organization to load 166 PETs, or Personal Energy Transportation, for shipment to Cameroon.
The PETs are hand-cranked wheelchairs, built with three wheelbarrow wheels and tires and a cargo space. PETs are “designed to provide the gift of mobility to persons who have lost the use of their legs due to polio, landmine injury, amputation, disease, etc.”
According to West, over 21 million people in the world crawl on the ground due to lack of other means of mobility. “If the 21 million persons were all in one line of crawling people, it would be a line 30,000 miles long,” he wrote in a dedication litany.
When a request for a large shipment of PETs came from the Cameroon Baptist Convention Health Board, West immediately called John Baker, pastor of First Baptist, and asked if the church would like to assist the project by paying for shipping.
Baker “jumped at the chance,” said West, and asked if there was a way to be involved beyond the finances. The church missions team, chaired by Larry Rollins, toured the shop and liked what they saw.
“God has spoken to us through the still small voice of the Holy Spirit, asking us to bring relief, comfort, hope and dignity to some of the ‘least of these,’” Baker read during a dedication service after loading the PETs. “We have learned about our sisters and brothers in need, and are providing for some of them the previous gift of mobility which Christ and his disciples gave to the lame of their day.”
Baker later emphasized the church’s involvement as a means of following Christ. “We didn’t revive muscle or tissue like in Jesus’ miracle stories, but providing mobility and productivity potential to 166 of the ‘least of these’ today is incredibly gratifying,” he said. “It’s a remarkable gift for the users of PETs, nevertheless.”
Cameroon is a republic of central and western Africa. According to the Cameroon Baptist Convention Health Board, the North West Province of Cameroon has an estimated population of 1.8 million inhabitants, 180,000 of them with disabilities.
“The North West Province is located on the Western Plateau of Cameroon where topographic amplitudes are high and varied,” the organization’s report stated. “In addition, all of the roads in the rural communities are earth roads, most of which are not well-surfaced…. This makes the use of wheelchairs in rural communities very difficult and impossible in some areas.”
PETs are designed to work well in such conditions. When West and his friend Earl Miner built the first prototypes, they sent them to Larry and Laura Hills, then missionaries in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and asked them to put the PETs in the worst places and see if they work. The PETs passed the test.
Since then PETs have been shipped to over 63 different countries.
“If you do a good thing, do it well, and let people know, good people will want to help,” said West. “This is a good thing.”
This “good thing” has led to hundreds of groups across the United States building parts for the PET, which are then shipped to the PET Place in Columbia. In addition, 12 other assembly sites have sprung up from Texas to Tennessee to Washington to Africa.
West is paid only in the stories of PET recipients, “which makes me the richest company director there is,” he said.
When his wife, Barbara, first came to the shop and saw the PETs spread out, she was amazed and asked “Do you realize every one of these changes a life?” West responded, “Yeah, that’s why we do it!”
“Methodist reverend Mel West’s role-modeling of a Christian who simply wants to serve the poor and the outcast humbles me and makes me want to be more like him — which is more like Jesus,” Baker said.
He added that his church’s involvement is just a small part of their dedication to serving. “First Baptist has so many mission interests both near and far, from building Habitat houses to sending PETs to Cameroon to working in the country of Georgia to sending youth to Leipzig, Germany, for the Baptist World Alliance Youth Conference this summer,” he said. “FBC is simply a great group of broad-minded Christians who have their eyes and hearts set on a large vision of God’s kingdom. Sometimes I’m setting the pace, and sometimes I’m running to catch up!”
Above: First Baptist, Columbia, members John Baker, pastor, Larry and Esther Rollins and Ed Rollins, associate pastor, gather around Virginia Edens as she demonstrates a PET.