ABILITY House Magazine Article IllustrationInterview with Kenneth Behring - by Chet Cooper

According to the Wheelchair Foundation, an estimated 100 to 130 million people worldwide need wheelchairs, though less than 1 percent own or have access to one. Furthermore, the Wheelchair Foundation estimates that the number of people who need wheelchairs will increase by 22 percent over the next ten years, with the greatest need existing in developing countries. With such staggering and seemingly insurmountable figures, a solution hardly seems imminent. However, Kenneth E. Behring is tackling the issue one wheelchair—or sometimes five thousand—at a time.

Behring began his career as a prosperous automobile dealer in Wisconsin before moving to Florida. He retired from the auto business at age 27, and from there he took up real estate. Over the course of the next 35 years, Behring created numerous planned communities in Florida and California, including the world-renowned Blackhawk development near San Francisco.

An avid sports fan, Behring purchased the Seattle Seahawks football team in 1988. Shortly thereafter, he established the Seattle Seahawks Charitable Foundation, which benefits numerous children’s charities. Behring next established the Blackhawk Museum, followed by the U.C. Berkeley Museum of Art, Science and Culture and the Behring-Hofmann Educational Institute to benefit the San Francisco East Bay region. He gave a donation of $20 million to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in 1997, and in 2000 Behring contributed an additional $80 million to rebuild the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Behring has served as president of the American Academy of Achievement, and he serves on the boards of the Smithsonian Natural History Museum and the University of Wisconsin Athletics. He has also received the Smithsonian covenant James Smithson Award, and both the Boys Town of Italy and the Mount Diablo Hospital Foundation have honored Behring as Man of the Year.

During his years of travel, Behring has made it his personal mission to help those in need. His donations of food, medical supplies, clothing, toys and educational materials have helped people in some of the most impoverished nations on earth. Not an arm-chair executive, his first-hand involvement has given him a realistic picture of how much help is needed worldwide.

In 1999, at the bequest of a church group, Behring began delivering wheelchairs to relief organizations in Eastern Europe and Africa. In June of 2000, he committed $15 million to his newly created Wheelchair Foundation. Supporters of the foundation range from Queen Sofia of Spain, who recently gave five hundred wheelchairs, to the Presidents and First Ladies of many of the countries benefiting from the generous donations of the foundation. Individuals also comprise a considerable percentage of the contributors. Each individual donation of $75 toward the $150 cost of a wheelchair is matched by the foundation.

ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper spoke by telephone to Behring who had recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan to deliver wheelchairs.

Chet Cooper: I understand you’re currently in the Czech Republic, and that you have recently visited Afghanistan.

Ken Behring: Yes, we’ve just finished giving away five thousand wheelchairs in Afghanistan—mostly to people without their lower limbs. A lot of the people we met have lost both legs; some have lost only one. Now we’re giving away a few wheelchairs in the Czech Republic.

CC: Do you have any more scheduled stops before you return to the states?

KB: Yes, we’ll be making a few more. When we’re in Europe, we usually visit four or five countries and give away wheelchairs, or we identify the candidates to receive the chairs that we are planning to send by container.

CC: Where are the wheelchairs manufactured?

KB: Right now, nearly all the chairs are made in China. Eventually we’ll be purchasing them from multiple countries. Since our mission is to provide as many wheelchairs as we can, we must be very competitive in price, while still getting the best quality possible.

The manufacturers in China are the biggest in the world. There is one company that makes ten million bicycles per year, so they are able to be very competitive when producing wheelchairs.
CC: Are the chairs free to the recipients?

KB: Yes. We purchase the chairs and then give them away for free.

CC: How are the funds raised?

KB: Well, it’s a combination of efforts. There are a number of different groups that support the foundation, and I also personally contribute a significant portion of the funds. When [the foundation] started, I was going to do it on my own, but it’s gotten so big that we began bringing in other individuals and many different faith groups to help us. This year we’re planning to give away 200,000 chairs.

CC: That’s quite a large number. Does the foundation work with NGOs (non-government organizations) to assist with the distribution efforts?

KB: Absolutely! The NGOs are crucial in every country. I think we’re currently working with several hundred NGOs. When we were in Afghanistan, we used some people from the disability community, and the U.S. Army also helped us. We regularly give away quite a few chairs in China, working with their Disabled Federation. In Central America, for example, we work with First Ladies. The wives of the presidents usually have a foundation and they have the connections with rehabilitation hospitals. So they’ve been very, very helpful all through Central and South America in regard to helping us find appropriate recipients for the chairs.

CC: Are you working with any other organizations on this effort?

KB: We’ve partnered with General Sullivan and are associated with the U.S. Department of State and Defense. As partners, we buy and train dogs to find landmines; so far that’s been the only effective way to really locate the mines. There’s no machine that can find them. Some of the dogs can sniff out the powder in them, but it costs about $6,000 per dog for training. While in Afghanistan we met some people there who have been training dogs and they’re now breeding their own dogs to find the mines.

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Interview with Montel Williams

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