Metro nonprofit CEO draws from his own recovery, making wheelchairs affordable for all

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A new nonprofit in the metro is working to make wheelchairs available for the less-fortunate, and the group's leader understands that need firsthand.

Sometimes, a person`s needs don`t meet with their budget. Since January, Garrett Drake has worked to remedy that.

He leads Accessibility Medical Equipment, a metro agency that promotes independent living where refurbished wheelchairs are available at a fraction of their usual cost.

Most of group's wheelchairs come in as donations, and Drake and his team repair and clean them and sell them at cost, instead of a large markup. Drake said some wheelchairs can cost as much as $20,000, but the most expensive chair sold at Accessibility Medical Equipment is $225.

"We're serving our mission as long as we're meeting people's needs and helping them remain independent," Drake said Wednesday.

It wasn't hard for the 38-year-old to recognize customers who have strong financial obstacles. Many of his customers are uninsured, and many have low or fixed incomes. Drake said he came from a blue-collar family in Oklahoma that experienced the same struggles.

"I was in a wheelchair from third grade all the way to the middle of college," Drake said.

His own comeback centers around a set of wheels, having spent 10 years in a wheelchair, living with a form of muscular dystrophy that was diagnosed at age 8. Drake recalls experiencing trouble walking, holding his head up and chewing and swallowing his food.

On Wednesday, Drake expressed his gratitude for his family's sacrifices and empathy for people in similar circumstances.

"I began reading medical journals every single morning at nine years old," Drake remembered.

Eventually, Drake said he discovered a cocktail of medicines, supplements and therapy that strengthened his legs again. He's now able to walk without assistance or pain, which is answered prayer for his loved ones.

"Remembering how, when I was a kid, how difficult it was just to get out of bed," Drake said, seated at his desk in an office near City Market, "it's not easily forgotten. Not everyone is as lucky as I am, and there has to be something else I can do for those people who are still struggling."

Accessibility Medical uses grant money from Missouri Assistive Technology to keep wheelchair costs low. Drake said, thus far, his agency has helped nearly 100 people obtain quality wheelchairs at a low cost. He estimated his agency has saved those customers $150,000.

The Whole Person is a similar agency, built around helping people live without aid from others. Lea Klepees is the nonprofit's community outreach manager and also uses a wheelchair in her daily travels.

Klepees, who grew up in Hawaii, was born with a condition called Arthrogyrposis, a muscular disorder that disables a person's ability to extend and flex the body's muscles and joints.

"(A wheelchair) is absolutely needed in a person's life," Klepees said. "They're not cheap."

Klepees, a busy mother of two, just bought a new titanium-based wheelchair, a state-of-the-art speedy, yet supportive aid that cost her nearly $10,000. In her work with The Whole Person, she sees less-fortunate and uninsured people with disabilities all the time, most of whom can't afford a proper wheelchair.

"I think it's great that (Drake's) organization provides refurbished wheelchairs to someone that can't afford something brand new otherwise to help them live independently and to help them get around," Klepees said.

"It's a necessity for someone who's as independent as I am, getting from point A to point B, rolling after my kids and doing all kinds of stuff," she said.

"We're proud of the mission we're accomplishing. We have a long way to go and more that we want to do," Drake said.

He said the most satisfying part of his job is the expression of joy he gets when a person with a disability receives their new wheelchair. He believes each person`s needs are important, and everyone deserves a chance to live without aid from others.

Drake said his agency has around 60 refurbished wheelchairs ready for purchase, and that anyone can buy them. Customers aren't required to prove their level of income or need to get the reduced prices.