Visit to ARSOBO
As planned, in mid-November, 2015, my friend Polo Ribota and I set off on the long drive from Mazatlán, Sinaloa, to Nogales, Sonora – on the U.S. border – to visit ARSOBO (acronym for ARizona SOnora Border), a workshop where disabled people make assistive devices for others with disabilities. Accompanying us was Tomás Magallanes, a young man with sequelae of polio, who was first brought to PROJIMO by his mother for braces when he was six year old. After he grew up he worked for several years in the wheelchair workshop in PROJIMO Duranguito. I hoped that ARSOBO would accept Tomás as an apprentice to improve his wheelchair-making skills and to learn some of the new techniques developed in this border program.
My visit to ARSOBO had been pending for several years. Since the early planning stage, its founder – Dr. Boris (Duke) Duncan from the University of Arizona – had been picking my brain about how to get the program started, what should be its primary activities, and the overall approach. For years, he had envisioned facilitating some kind of a service program for disabled people of the U.S.-Mexican border, in response to the enormous, unmet need in the vast, impoverished population.
When Duke read my books and newsletters about the PROJIMO programs, run by disabled people themselves, he was eager to help start a similar endeavor in Nogales, on the Mexican side of the border. He began to correspond with me and members of the PROJIMO team. And eventually he visited the programs in Sinaloa with some of the folks he had recruited to begin ARSOBO.
A shaky start
It took more than two years of ups-and-downs and ins-and-outs until the new program, ARSOBO, finally got off the ground. In contrast to PROJIMO Coyotitán, with its comprehensive range of rehabilitation services, it was decided that ARSOBO would focus its services on production and fitting of three frequently-needed assistive devices: wheelchairs, prosthetics, and hearing aids.
During the planning and startup phase of ARSOBO, Duke was in frequent touch with me – about the physical design for the workshops, about finding dedicated disabled technicians, about financial matters, and about forging a path through the maze of border-town bureaucracy and game-playing. Time and again the local Rotary Club, political organizations, and government service programs made lofty promises to assist, only to back out in the end.
Key to ARSOBO getting its act together was its find of a gifted and highly dedicated manager, Francisco (Kiko) Trujillo, who has been able to pull the loose ends together and oversee a well-organized process of production. Also, an active board of directors has done a great job at fundraising, promotion, and the scrounging of tools and supplies.
Finding competent disabled craftspersons to run the different workshops was a major challenge. As turned out, the lead technicians recruited for two of the three workshops were former workers at PROJIMO: Gabriel Zepeda (a paraplegic wheelchair user) in wheelchairs, and Alberto (an above-the-knee amputee) in limb-making.
Gabriel and the Whirlwind Wheelchair
After he became paraplegic in a car accident more than 20 years ago, Gabriel had been taken to PROJIMO for rehabilitation. That was when the program was located in the mountain pueblo of Ajoya, before it moved to its base to Coyotitán, nearer the coast, because of all the drug trafficking and violence that had uprooted the remote mountain village. During his rehabilitation, Gabriel began to help out in the wheelchair shop, and in time became a master wheelchair builder. Many of the skills he learned from Ralf Hotchkiss, a paraplegic rehabilitation engineer who had designed the Whirlwind or Rough Rider all-terrain wheelchair and ran a wheelchair-building training center at the University of San Francisco. Eventually Ralf invited Gabriel to San Francisco to help him upgrade his skills and eventually to teach in the hands-on university-based training course.
Years later, when the PROJIMO Duranguito wheelchair-building program separated from what is now the PROJIMO Coyotitán community rehab program, Gabriel came to help train new workers, in Duranguito. His plan was to stay for two months, but he ended up staying four years. Under Gabriel’s lead, the Duranguito workshop began producing a wide range of wheelchairs skillfully adapted to each child’s individual needs. (See wheelchairs made in PROJIMO Duranguito.)
Eventually Gabriel left Duranguito and helped start two other new wheelchair-building programs, again with disabled builders, first in state of Nayarit, then in Colima. However both programs, set up to provide wheelchairs free or at very low cost to children of poor families, had difficulty staying afloat.
When Gabriel accepted the offer to join the emerging ARSOBO program in Nogales, with him went another former PROJIMO Duranguito wheelchair-builder, Lupito, also disabled. However, after Gabriel and Lupito arrived, it took nearly two years to find a suitable workplace and begin steady production. Eventually Lupito jumped ship, but Gabriel hung on until at last the group was loaned, free of charge, a big old warehouse, which the team energetically converted into workshops and offices.
Once the physical logistics were worked out, the three different workshops began serious production. With Gabriel at the helm, the quality of his custom-designed wheelchairs was so impressive that soon various rehabilitation centers in the city, both government and nongovernment, began to place orders. Soon, within the disability community of Nogales, ARSOBO became quite renowned.
Alberto and artificial limbs
With Alberto taking the lead in the prosthetics shop, the limb-making program also got off to a good start. Unlike Gabriel, Alberto was a relative novice in his field: prosthetics. When he left PROJIMO Coyotitán he still had relatively little training. So to help him improve his skills, board members of ARSOBO helped Alberto get a visa to the United States, where he was welcomed to apprentice with the highly skilled prosthetics staff at the Hanger Clinic in Tucson. In a short time Alberto was producing well-fitting, good quality limbs.
Unfortunately, just the week before our visit to Nogales, Alberto was asked to leave ARSOBO because of unacceptable interpersonal problems. A real shame. He’s a good person with a serious Achilles heel. Who knows where life will take him in the future, or how he’ll keep the wolf from his door.
The hearing-aid program
As stated on its website (Arsobo.org) ARSOBO’s “Hearing-Health Workshop” trains and employs hearing-impaired individuals to assemble solar-powered hearing-aids and battery rechargers packaged with high-quality, low-cost hearing-aids. Hearing-aids and batteries are costly and the batteries usually last no more than a week. To be able to recharge the batteries with solar power extends their life for 1 to 2 years and is a cost-effective, environmentally friendly alternative to disposable or electrically rechargeable batteries.
ARSOBO has an impressive network of supporters – from different businesses, factories, and supply houses in the U.S. – through which it acquires many of the materials and components for its hearing aids, batteries, wheelchairs, and prostheses – either donated or at greatly reduced costs. ARSOBO’s able volunteers and networkers.
Tomás, the innovative wheelchair builder from Sinaloa who joined us on our visit to ARSOBO, was heartily welcomed by the ARSOBO team to come back early in 2016 for a few weeks, to apprentice with Gabriel in the wheelchair shop. Tomás hopes to improve his welding skills, and learn to construct better functioning brakes, make more attractive upholstery, and install push-button axels axles for easily removable wheels. With these new skills, he should be able to help upgrade the quality of the wheelchairs made in Duranguito. … If, in addition, Tomás picks up some organizational abilities and takes them back to the somewhat discombobulated programs in Sinaloa, so much the better. Sometimes we jokingly say of our ragtag endeavors that, “We are not members of an organization, but rather a disorganization.” Yet occasionally a bit more structured management can be helpful.