The billionaire who's donating thousands of wheelchairs to China

The billionaire who's donating thousands of wheelchairs to China

CNNGo reader Joseph Constanty talks with billionaire philanthropist and Wheelchair Foundation founder Ken Behring about giving back to Shanghai

Wheel Chair FoundationKen Behring with a child who has benefited from Wheelchair Foundation's work in China.The Wheel Chair Foundation was founded in 2000 after billionaire philanthropist Ken Behring’s chance encounter with a disabled elderly man in Romania.

Ten years and dozens of countries later, the foundation has given away nearly 1 million wheel chairs.

As a part of Behring's larger charity umbrella, The Global Health & Education Foundation, he will be in Shanghai making a donation to the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum on Wednesday, November 10.

To date, the foundation has donated 280,073 wheel chairs to the disabled in China.

CNNGo: The growth of the Wheelchair Foundation has been marching forward as of late, especially in China. Has it always been so easy?

Ken Behring:

Of course there have been some challenges, but what has made our growth so fantastic has been the open mind-set of cooperating governing bodies across China.

Local officials are regularly coming to me, openly saying, "Mr Behring, we have a problem with managing and helping our disabled community. Can you help?" They recognize their shortfalls, and are looking for support to get them up to speed.

CNNGo: As a successful entrepreneur, you've run everything from car dealerships to real estate developments and an NFL team. Why move on to wheelchairs and why start helping the disabled in China?

Ken Behring: 

My first trip to China was purely business, but I quickly felt at home and was welcomed with open arms. I never felt like an outsider here in China, and I was immediately drawn to finding a way to get the Wheelchair Foundation off the ground here.

CNNGo: Do you run the foundation like a business?

Ken Behring:

Other charities spend thousands of dollars getting wheelchairs to their recipients, but because of how we are set up, it costs us only US$125 internationally, and US$75 in China. 

I can say my Chinese management team, headed by Angie Shen here in Shanghai, pays close attention to the numbers, allowing me to run this charity just like I run my other businesses.

Running it like this, this efficiently, has allowed us to distribute over 280,000 wheelchairs in China to date and cooperate with various government bodies, and even the Shanghai 2010 Expo where we coordinated the "Seeing the Expo from one-meter high" program, which allowed people to experience life in a wheelchair.

CNNGo: How can people get involved with the Wheelchair Foundation in China?

Ken Behring:

We welcome everyone who is looking to give a helping hand, but obviously we would like people to make a donation to cover the cost of at least one wheelchair. But, if there are economic limitations, like students, we can always take on an extra pair of hands at various activities.

CNNGo: Do you have any wheelchair distributions planned in the near future in China?

Ken Behring:

As a matter of fact we do, the next one will be held around the beginning of January 2011. And, of course we would love to have new volunteers and those interested in making donations join too. We will post details for the event on the website.

CNNGo: In China, wheelchairs are not the only charity you are involved with. Can you talk a bit about what else you do here?

Ken Behring:

The Wheelchair Foundation has allowed us to open some doors we may not ordinarily have access to. We have donated a half dozen exhibits at various natural history and science museums, and this is why I'm in Shanghai this week.

Our foundation has already made a previous donation to the natural history section of the Science and Technology Museum, and this time we would like to make a further contribution.

These museums are like windows to the world for everyone who steps inside, and I hope my donations can help the Shanghai community explore the world.

CNNGo: Your next for-profit project seems to have charitable angle to it. Can you explain?

Ken Behring:

Well, we are creating a luxury real-estate development on Chongming Island. Just adjacent to this development is a plot of land that we are planning to create a first-of-its-kind retirement community that will support a range of people from active adults to those in need of assisted living. It will use a similar business model that has worked for us back in the United States.

The rapidly aging population in China has many pitfalls, and there is no doubt in my mind that communities such as these will become a huge trend in the coming years, especially with the limited family resources as a result of the one-child policy.

For more information bout the Wheelchair Foundation please visit www.wheelchairfoundation.org (Chinese only) or contact Kathy Li at kli@wheelchairfoundation.org
About the author: Joseph Constanty is a freelance contributor to CNNGo.com focusing on entrepreneurs and small businesses in China. He operates start-up, www.Wufantuan.com in Shanghai. Joe has been in China for over 10 years.

Joseph submitted this piece as part of CNNGo’s CityPulse section. To find out what other stories we are looking for, go to our CityPulse page.