When most visitors go to Florida, they often wind up at some of the state’s many tourist attractions–the Everglades, the Kennedy Space Center, Disney World, Daytona Beach–to mention a few. But none of those spots were on my itinerary when I went to the state recently. It was my first trip there since I was kid vacationing with my parents. And one of the reasons I travelled from one tip of the country to the other, was to spend a little time with my 89-year-old uncle.
Red, as most people know him, is an old salt whose career with the Navy began when he ran away from home as a teenager, signed up under age during World War II and then toured the world mostly on aircraft carriers to become a Master Chief Petty Officer asked to go to the Pentagon, a job he turned down. But I know him as the uncle who was full of shenanigans as a boy, plays harmonica, sews and can tell a tale with the best of them.
I visited him at his retirement community where he now lives, Penney Farms, about 50 miles south of Jacksonville. It’s a thriving little place that was established in 1926 by the department store tycoon, J.C. Penney as somewhere for his parents, who were in the ministry, and others like them could retire. The population who reside there now, like my uncle, come from varied backgrounds. It’s a lovely spot with 93 cottages, an apartment complex, health facilities, a gym, an arts center, a non-denominational church, and a beautiful Norman-styled architecture dining hall where I had breakfast with my uncle every morning.
My uncle gave me the grand tour which besides the stops I’ve already listed, also included the workshop where he spends two mornings a week. This is not, however, your ordinary workshop for hobbyists who like to putter at building a birdhouse or maybe a sign for the front door. This is serious stuff.
Those who come here are all dedicated volunteers who collectively construct wooden carts that are shipped, literally, all over the world to those who are leg disabled. It is part of a much larger project known as the Personal Energy Transportation Mobility Project, or PET for short.
Begun in 1994 by missionaries Larry Hills, Mel West and engineer Earl Miner. PET was intended to provide a means of mobility to persons who had been victims of polio or landmines. The first of these went to where Hills was posted in Zaire. But word about their effort and project quickly spread until today, PET ships, through its 26 affiliate workshops, thousands of these carts to 101 countries. Carts crafted at the Penny Farms workshop alone have gone to 93 countries.
Those who volunteer at the Penney Farms workshop, like my uncle, each have a specific job to do in manufacturing the cart. My uncle’s is to cut to size the boards needed for the body. Another tugs and pulls to upholster the seat cushions; another cuts the drive chains to an exact length and others give them the final coats of colorful paint. Most, but not all, who come here, reside at Penney Farms.
The ingenuous design of these mobility miracles has evolved over the years. Padded seats were added, wooden handles were switched to heavy-duty plastic, tires were improved and a storage bin included beneath for carrying goods and other items. But they all still substitute a hand crank for foot pedals to power it and make it affordable to PET’s partners who supply those in poor, underdeveloped countries. As a result, more than 57,000 people have been lifted off their knees and out of the dirt.
Sure, it’s not the high technology that visitors will see when they go to the Kennedy Space Center, but the good it’s accomplishing is beyond technology. And those I met who volunteer in the Penney Farms workshop obviously love the camaraderie and the purpose of what they are building there. Might not be on your list of places to go next time you visit Florida, but I’m glad it was on mine.