LAKE WORTH BEACH, Fla. — Changing the lives of mobility challenged children in need is the mission of a Palm Beach County woman. Valerie Mathieu works tirelessly to purchase and repair wheelchairs for handicapped children. Years ago, she was volunteering at the Royal Palm School for special needs children in Lantana.
"I just became aware of the condition of some of the wheelchairs and I was really surprised," Mathieu said. "There would be duct tape or disrepair on a child's wheelchair and it didn't make sense to me. Insurance didn't cover things and a lot of these children didn't have insurance."
That's when Mathieu decided to do more and her nonprofit group, "Chariots of Love," was born.
"We serve children with disabilities across the United States," Mathieu said. "Anyone through the age of 21 or up we provide wheelchair repairs."
Since its inception in 2010, "Chariots of Love" has gifted 120 children a new or refurbished wheelchair or retrofitted one the child already had to better suit his or her needs.
"We provide actual professional assessments through TD Medical," Mathieu said. "They come out and assess the child's needs, the home needs, the family needs. We are able to make a plan to provide the correct medical equipment to them. If it's something I have here, we can have it refurbished and donated to them, or if not we will purchase something brand new."
The cost of such equipment that really changes the livelihood of wheelchair-bound children can run anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to $40,000. Mathieu applies for grants and accepts donations and sponsorship money from the community to make it happen. It is absolutely free to the child and the child's family.
One child recently helped by "Chariots of Love" is a boy who has cerebral palsy and is in foster care in Loxahatchee. The organization fixed his chair so it better fit his needs.
"It was tipping over backwards with all the equipment that he has to carry with him," Mathieu said. "So we were able to move the wheel base longer, and by modifying the base, we were able to put a TD Medical-built custom tray underneath that holds all of his feeding tubes and his monitors."
The youngest child the organization has served was 2 years old and the oldest was 21.
"This is my favorite quote, from Ronald Reagan, and I believe it completely," Mathieu said. "It says, 'You can't help everyone, but everyone can help someone.' So, I can't help all the kids, but the kids I can help, I'll do all I can."
And all she can, she does. After working an overnight shift at Home Depot and maybe getting in a few rounds on the ice practicing her hobby of ice hockey, Valerie can otherwise be found writing up grants, contacting applicants and planning the next gift of mobility.
"Mow the grass, run some laundry, eat some food," Mathieu said in describing her typical day. "I am a very good napper. I can nap on command, and that is a lifesaver."
But a smile on a child's face as he or she sits in a new piece of equipment for the first time is what Mathieu said energizes her and keeps her going.
"That just goes right to my heart and that's what I have on my brain when I go to sleep at night," she said.
The next gift of mobility is happening this week. An adaptive bicycle will go to a special adopted 11-year-old boy. His parents also foster medically fragile children. "Inspiring South Florida" will feature their story Oct. 6 on WPTV NewsChannel 5 at 6 p.m.
Anyone interested in learning more about "Chariots of Love" can visit the website Chariotsoflove.org.
"People who want to support families can go to my website," Mathieu said. "They can make a donation and we take sponsorships so you can actually sponsor a specific child. You actually get a plaque with your name on the child's wheelchair and you can be present when they're receiving their wheelchair."