Mohan Sudabattula was 10 years old when his parents took him on a trip from their home in Utah to their family’s ancestral village in India in 2006.
Along with visiting family and historic landmarks, Sudabattula's mother took him to an orphanage and school for disabled children. She thought it was important for him to see it.
Sudabattula, now 23, vividly remembers that some of the children were missing limbs, and used old lawn chairs with bicycle tires attached as wheelchairs.
“But most of them were still laughing and smiling and happy to meet us,” said Sudabattula, who was born in the United States.
After returning home to West Jordan, Utah, where his parents had immigrated three decades ago, Sudabattula often thought about the cheerful children in those lawn chairs.
“It always stayed with me — they didn’t even have a proper wheelchair,” he said.
So in 2016, when he came up with an idea to help people in wheelchairs — not only poor people in India, but those in his own suburban hometown — he went all in.
Sudabattula was a triple major at the University of Utah (health policy, biology and philosophy) and a volunteer measuring disabled children for prosthetics at Shriners Hospitals for Children in Salt Lake City.
He noticed that the children frequently removed their prosthetics because they weren’t comfortable, and they also quickly outgrew them.
“Their parents would bring the prosthetics back, and the protocol was for us to throw them away,” he said.
That seemed wasteful to Sudabattula as he recalled the makeshift wheelchairs in India.
The unwanted prosthetics from Shriners couldn’t be reused because they were each designed to fit only one child. But the throwaway devices got Sudabattula thinking: What other mobility equipment could be rescued from dusty attics and basements, cleaned up and given to somebody in need?
"I knew that something as simple as a pair of crutches would change a person's life,” he said.
After doing some research, Sudabattula created Project Embrace from his dorm room — a nonprofit that collects gently used wheelchairs, walkers, canes, crutches, slings, orthotic shoes and braces and redistributes them to disabled children and adults who can’t afford them.
Since July 2017, he estimates that Project Embrace has collected, cleaned and given away about 500 pieces of used mobility equipment to low-income people in Utah and to organizations that help the disabled in India and Swaziland.
At first, Sudabattula and his friends scoured local thrift stores for all the crutches and braces they could find. Then they started asking everyone they encountered whether they knew of anyone with a wheelchair or a walker that was no longer being used.
"I learned to fit a lot into my Prius, so our living room was always full of wheelchairs and piles of donated medical equipment,” he said. “Everywhere you looked, there were crutches propped up against the wall. My roommates were incredibly patient."
When word got out about the group’s efforts, Sudabattula and his friends set up a website, and the phone started ringing, not only with offers of donations from families, care centers and metal scrap yards, but also of help.
The nonprofit now operates out of a free storage unit in Salt Lake County and donated office space at the University of Utah.
Gabrielle Hoyer, 23, a biomedical engineering master’s candidate at the University of Utah has been a volunteer from the beginning.
"It is all too easy to become wrapped up in school, deadlines and work, and Project Embrace is an opportunity to see the big picture outside of myself,” she said.
For Zac Fox, a 22-year-old strategic communication major who is now the group's marketing director, the most rewarding aspect is meeting people who donate equipment once used by their loved ones.
“For somebody whose spouse used a wheelchair or walker before they passed away, it’s hard to think of that equipment going into the trash,” said Fox. “When they give it to us, they feel like they’ve given it a second life. And then to see the recipient’s face light up — that’s extremely rewarding.”
Several times a year, Project Embrace holds a volunteer “clean-up” day, when dozens of students show up to sanitize and polish all of the equipment before it is given away.
Recently, the group ventured for the second time with a full U-Haul to the Navajo Nation on the Utah-Arizona border, where there aren’t always enough wheelchairs, walkers and crutches for people who need them.
At the Utah Navajo Health System in Montezuma Creek, Utah, which describes itself as serving a rural location and a medically underserved population, a nurse told Sudabattula that she’d been trying to decide which patient out of 12 most deserved the single wheelchair that was available, he recalled.
"And then we pulled in with 80 medical devices, including 15 wheelchairs,” said Sudabattula. He added: “We wished we could have brought more. But we’ll be back.”
Many of the donations go to Navajo families who sometimes drive more than 200 miles to see a physician, said Heather Balchinclowing, an independent living coordinator for Active Re-Entry who assists disabled people in four states and the Navajo Nation.
“These donations greatly improve their daily living and self-esteem,” she said.
Shortly after starting his charity, Sudabattula went back to the same orphanage in India that he’d visited with his parents a decade earlier. This time, he brought several large boxes — filled with crutches and walkers.
“When it comes down to it, I feel a duty to help the people around me,” he said. “Everyone deserves to be healthy and happy.”