Seneca minister on the road to create mobility awareness
CHATTANOOGA, Ten. ? Brian Eaglehelper is passionate about helping the disabled in Indian country enjoy a higher quality of life.
The ordained minister, a Seneca, is planning to dramatize the problems the handicapped suffer in getting around reservations by taking his motorized wheelchair on a trip he calls "The Freedom Ride" from Juneau, Alaska, to Washington, D.C. He hopes to raise funds and create awareness of mobility issues.
He is currently seeking corporate and tribal financial backing for the project, which is tentatively scheduled to begin Jan. 1, 2003.
Eaglehelper plans to reach the White House in six to nine months of crossing Indian country and stopping at major urban centers.
"Freedom and mobility is an important part of our culture," said Eaglehelper.
Three years ago, his own physical condition degenerated and he needed help from an independent living center to adapt to life in a wheelchair. He explained that independent living centers act as liaisons between the disabled and the different agencies that serve their conditions.
"I asked them what was being done to help Indians on the reservations," said Eaglehelper of service providers. "What are you really doing for my people?"
Eaglehelper started researching the independent living centers on reservations across the country. He discovered that most off-reservation centers are supported by the United Way, but that the charity did not support Indian Health Service (IHS) or tribally run facilities.
"I prayed to the Creator and was inspired to bring awareness and education to this issue," said Eaglehelper.
He did praise the Indian gaming industry's support of handicapped access at nearly all the casinos he had visited. Eaglehelper made special mention of the Foxwoods Casino operated by the Mashantucket Pequots in Connecticut.
"There are always ramps and bathroom facilities that allow me to get in or out," he said. "This might not seem like a big deal to some people, but when you need to get in the bathroom it becomes a big deal."
He also said that Foxwoods and the Mohegan Sun have donated $7,500 and a laptop computer, with more promised as the project starts to firm up. The Native American Actors Guild and a wheelchair manufacturer have also extended support.
Eaglehelper was not so kind to the IHS. He said that many tribal members in different parts of the country were in desperate need of mechanical chairs. Some lived within three or four blocks of casinos where there is access, but more remote locations were given lower quality service and support.
"If you don't live within 12 miles of IHS, they're not coming to help you," said Eaglehelper of disabled tribal members who had accidents. He added that IHS buys substandard non-motorized wheelchairs that prevent many, especially elders, from having any mobility.
"IHS buys the cheapest products made or that are worn out, that end up costing $3,000 to $4,000 by the time everybody has stuffed their pockets," said Eaglehelper. "It is time to give our elders the freedom to rejoin our sacred circle."
Funding and donations for the journey have dropped off dramatically since the tragedies of Sept. 11, according to Eaglehelper. Expenses will be considerable he said considering his goal of reaching most of the remotest reservations and Indian communities.
Eaglehelper is very optimistic about the impact of the Freedom Ride for disabled Indians.
"Your life is not over," he said his message would be to them. "The Great Spirit put me here. I'm glad to be in the chair. I could be six feet under."
Those interested in supporting the Freedom Ride or receiving further information should contact Eaglehelper Ministries, 7111 McCutcheon Rd., Chattanooga, TN 37421, call (423) 485-8302, fax (423) 485-8374, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Eaglehelper's website, www.eaglehelper.bizhosting.com, is currently under construction.
Eaglehelper ministries is a registered 501(c)(3) charitable foundation.