Capezzone & Friends present benefit concert in Branford to bestow gift of mobility
By Lisa Reisman, firstname.lastname@example.org, POSTED: 03/01/15, 5:26 PM EST
BRANFORD >> Branford’s Laurence “Pepi” Capezzone heard about the Honduran woman who had been crawling on the ground since she developed polio at the age of 2. And the man in Central Asia whose legs had to be amputated due to collapsing veins. And the Sudanese boy, also polio-stricken, hidden away in shame because his legs did not function.
No, he didn’t march to his workshop and build hand-cranked carts so each of them could get around.
He did the next best thing.
He organized a concert to benefit the Missouri-based PET International, a volunteer non-profit organization that gets its acronym from “personal energy transportation” vehicles, the hand-powered carts that the group constructs and distributes at no cost and that has come to the aid of tens of thousands of people without use of their legs, including the three above.
The concert, featuring his local faith-based Americana band, will take place at the United Methodist Church in Branford Saturday night.
“I knew what they needed most were funds and it just struck me as a way to do something good,” said Capezzone, 56, who works for the U.S. Postal Service in Guilford. “And to have fun entertaining people at the same time.”
PET began in 1994 when a missionary in Zaire (now Congo) named Larry Hills, having grown troubled by the sight of people crawling on their bellies and living their lives in degradation, came to realize the urgent need for three-wheeled hand-cranked wheelchairs for victims of polio and landmines, according to the PET International website.
And the problem wasn’t confined to Zaire. PET International estimates that over 70 million people worldwide have lost the use of their legs due to landmines, birth defects, illness or accidents. In places outside the U.S., traditional wheelchairs are scarce and expensive—in some cases costing more than a year’s salary—with wheels too thin to navigate the rough terrain, leaving individuals to crawl through mud and sharp rocks.
By 1995, there was a prototype: a three-wheel, off-road wheelchair, operated by a hand crank that moved the vehicle forward, back, and side to side, with fat, rubber tires, sturdy enough to withstand rugged terrain, and storage space underneath to transport belongings.
“Put them in the worst place you can find, and see if they pass the test,” were Hills’ instructions, when shipments began to Zaire.
What started as a modest effort to provide free transportation for people who couldn’t walk gradually grew into an international operation. Currently there are 24 affiliates across the country whose members have trained with Hills to launch their own production centers. In garages and warehouses, volunteers form an intricate assembly line, sawing and painting pieces of wood and metal and bolting them together to produce a single cart.
Those carts eventually find their way to over 100 countries around the world, from Afghan war zones to impoverished Guatemalan villages to earthquake-ravaged Haiti, said Von Gillis, PET International director of operations. Each one costs about $250 to build, pack and ship. Recipients get the carts for free.
When the PETs emerge from their boxes, their users emerge from the shadows, according to PET cofounder and executive director Mel West.
“They are often kept away in back rooms, dark rooms, they are treated as less than human, as cursed by God,” West has said. “When they get out in public, they are kicked, spat upon, and told to get out of the way.”
To date, PET International has shipped more than 49,000 carts. That includes one for the polio-stricken boy who now bikes to school, or to church, or to the village market. And for the man with the amputated legs who’s able to work around his house, in the garden, supporting his family. The woman who spent two decades crawling on the ground? She fills her cart with bread and sells it on the street to earn money for her family.
Still, there’s no denying the shortfall in the nonprofit organization’s budget.
“The only thing that keeps PET from making more carts is money,” said Capezzone, who will take the stage with violinist Conny Winterhoss, Rick Gregoire on guitar, bassist Bob Masshee, Tony Cafiero on the keyboard and drummer Phil Palmisano.
“That’s where we can help people get their lives back. Even if it’s only enough for two or three carts, it’s worth it.”
The Concert for PET, featuring the original music of Laurence Capezzone & Friends, will take place 7:30 p.m. March 7 at United Methodist Church, 811 E. Main Street, Branford. The concert is free. Refreshments after concert. Donations are welcome. To donate to PET International, visit www.petinternational.org.
Lisa Reisman of Branford is the author of the forthcoming memoir “5 Months 10 Years 2 Hours” and is a regular contributor to the ShoreLine Times. Her website is http://outpost19.com/FiveTenTwo/.