Friends of the Disabled Latin America, Inc. (FRIDLA) is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to glorifying God by seeking out and assisting those affected by disability, presenting the gospel of Jesus Christ and building them up in the faith. This ministry model began in Chile in 1996.
My husband and I were part of a church planting team in Santiago, Chile, and decided that our hearts' desire was to help those affected by disabilities. I had been a victim of polio as a child. We had become involved with Refugio Esperanza, a camp in Chile for children with disabilities. In July 1996, with the help of the Joni and Friends program “Wheels for the World,” we held our first evangelistic outreach and distribution of wheelchairs and other mobility equipment to the economically disadvantaged in Santiago, Chile.
We discovered that as soon as the distribution was over, no one was interested in ministering to people with disabilities. It was apparent that everyone who volunteered wanted to help with a “good work”; however, that was as far as it went.
We began to seek out and train volunteers in disability awareness as a requirement for serving as a volunteer with the ministry. In 1997 we formed a non-profit corporation in Chile made up of nationals so that disability ministry would be ongoing. This would also give us the ability to import the wheelchairs without paying import taxes.
Meeting the Needs of the Disabled
The primary focus of the non-denominational, non-profit corporation is ministering to and evangelizing those affected by disability. Helping the physical needs of this people group, empowering the local churches and mobilizing the nationals for follow-up and discipleship accomplish this objective. After each wheelchair, walker or other mobility implement is custom fitted for the recipient, the entire family is presented the gospel in a private setting.
While on furlough in September 1995, my husband was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. The doctors gave him six months to live. He felt compelled to return to Chile. His dream was to help me begin the ministry. I was in a lumbar brace and in constant pain. Considering our health problems, everyone thought we were crazy for returning to Chile! As it turned out, God’s plan was for my husband to live for two years. In 1997 the ministry spread to southern Chile and there were plans to take the ministry to northern Chile in 1998. My husband died in Santiago in September 1997, but not before God allowed him to see his dream fulfilled.
I returned to the United States in late 1998 and founded Friends of the Disabled Latin America, Inc. (FRIDLA), located in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA. The expansion into other countries in Latin America began in 1999 in Lima, Peru. For eighteen months the emphasis was on building awareness, changing attitudes in the churches and training volunteers. Because people with disabilities are hidden from public view, the volunteers had to seek them out. The Lausanne 2004 Forum for World Evangelization included those with disabilities as part of the “Hidden and Forgotten People Groups.”
In many parts of the world people with disabilities are considered to be of lesser value. Their families are isolated by society and treated with prejudice. Many still believe that God is punishing the family because of sin; this belief explains why the family has a member with a disability. One only needs to look at the scriptures and read John 9:1-3 to discover that this is not a new phenomenon. There you will see an example of the cultural influence on the beliefs of the disciples. Many pastors, having grown up in this culture, usually do not realize that it has affected the way they look at people with disabilities. They need to be reminded that God created all people in his image. All must be treated equal even though they are different on the outside. It is necessary to look to Luke 14:23: “Go quickly into the streets…make them come in so that my house may be full.”
The Peruvian corporation of FRIDLA was founded in 2000 and the first distribution of wheelchairs, walkers and crutches took place with the help of “Wheels for the World.” The ministry administered by nationals continues to grow in Peru.
In 2001 I married Alberto Nuñez, a native of Peru. We established a workshop for the ministry in Florida. Alberto began collecting and repairing power and manual wheelchairs.
Each One Can Help
In 2002 FRIDLA began establishing the ministry in Bolivia. The first twenty months was spent in training and mobilizing volunteers. The non-profit corporation became official in 2003 and with the help of Wheels of Hope in Akron, Ohio, USA, evangelistic/fitting events began in Santa Cruz. Each year new cities are added to the ministry. FRIDLA now ships containers of wheelchairs to Bolivia and Chile and the volunteers have monthly evangelistic/fitting events.
In 2003 a prayer partner in South Carolina, USA, told me that he was getting ready to semi-retire and would like to learn how to repair wheelchairs. His church decided to make the wheelchair repair a ministry of the church. The desire of one person has grown to a dozen volunteers who get together weekly to repair wheelchairs for FRIDLA. They shipped their first group of refurbished wheelchairs to Chile in 2004. A forty-foot container was shipped to Bolivia in 2005 and another was shipped in August 2006. Volunteers in Colorado, Florida, Georgia and North and South Carolina collect used wheelchairs to be refurbished.
Future Ministry Plans
Over 3,500 wheelchairs have been custom-fitted since this ministry began in 1996. Hundreds of crutches, walkers and other mobility devices have been distributed to economically-disadvantaged people with disabilities in Bolivia, Chile and Peru. Every individual who receives mobility equipment also receives a Bible and the gospel is shared with the entire family. Over eighteen thousand people in Latin America have heard the gospel of Jesus Christ through FRIDLA’s ministry.
Future plans include continued expansion of the ministry in Bolivia as well as developing a regional ministry center and transitory clinic (shelter) near Santa Cruz. The regional center will house a ministry office, repair workshop and warehouse. More importantly, it will be a “week-care” home. Many times either the mother or father deserts the family because they cannot deal with the responsibility. Sometimes, the disabled person is abandoned altogether. The shelter will be a blessing for families who have a member who requires continuous care. This will make it possible for the caregiver to work outside the home in order to support the family. Future plans for the center include job-skill training, nutritional training for caregivers, Bible studies and discipleship.
As God leads and provides, FRIDLA plans to expand into other Latin American countries. All the glory and honor belongs to God. Only he has enabled this to be accomplished.