March 2012 -- For his efforts to provide wheelchairs to those who had to do without, Richard St. Denis has been named one of the top 10 CNN Heroes of 2011.
The CNN tribute to everyday heroes honors those who make “extraordinary contributions to help improve the lives of others.”
The Cable News Network recognized this wheelchair-certified member of the USPTA for changing lives in poor, rural areas of Mexico where some people with disabilities resort to crawling, using crude crutches or simply staying inside because they have no means of mobility.
The 56-year-old St. Denis, who himself has used a wheelchair since he broke his back in a 1976 skiing accident, is founder, director and president of the nonprofit World Access Project.
St. Denis was featured on CNN and received $50,000, which he said he’ll use toward building a rehabilitation facility in the small village of Santiago Casandeje, Mexico. Most of the year, he lives in Casandeje with his wife, Hazuki, but they spend about two months at their home in Tucson, Ariz.
St. Denis said in the CNN interview that he was grateful to share his organization’s work on national television. “There are thousands of wheelchairs sitting in peoples’ garages and basements. We hope that through this show, we can get people to donate wheelchairs so we can put them to good use.”
Carolyn Pali, a parishioner at Resurrection Lutheran Church in Spring, Texas, nominated St. Denis for the annual “heroes” segment and online voting drove him into the top 10. Pali’s church collects wheelchair donations from the Houston area and has sent volunteers to Mexico for several years.
St. Denis took his first wheelchair to Mexico in 1997, when he was living in Colorado and working as an attorney. He had one wheelchair to give away, and he picked a 17-year-old girl with polio who depended on her mother to carry her around. She was so happy that he knew he couldn’t stop there and began making the trip every year.
The World Access Project also now purchases wheelchairs, crutches and walkers from a company in that country that makes wheelchairs designed for rural Mexico’s rough terrain.
St. Denis and his team of volunteers show the recipients of the wheelchairs how to use them, then help encourage their new mobility by teaching them tennis and other sports. Some take up the sport and play on teams.
The organization needs volunteers to help with sports camps. St. Denis stresses that you don’t have to be an athlete (or tennis pro); you just have to care enough to encourage – and have fun.
The World Access Project also sponsors the best players from Mexico to go to the United States to play in the Southwest Desert Classic, an international wheelchair tennis tournament in Tucson.
For more information or to donate “gently used” tennis racquets or balls, contact Richard St. Denis at Richard@WorldAccessProject.org or call World Access Project at (520) 343-4402.