- By Melissa Loveridge Chronicle Staff Writer
Delivering wheelchairs to disabled kids across the country from Bozeman may sound like a pipe dream, but it’s exactly what ROC Wheels does. Now, the organization is starting a new program, ROC Warriors, a “therapeutic workshop” where combat veterans will help build and deliver wheelchairs around the world.
“We’re helping people here by helping them help others,” said ROC Wheels co-founder Wayne Hanson, who founded the company with his wife Lee Ann.
ROC Warriors is hosting a speech by combat veteran Eric Donoho on Thursday, Aug. 23. Donoho was deployed in Iraq in 2006 and was medically retired three years later. In 2018, he delivered four ROC wheelchairs to children in Nepal, and the ROC Warriors program was born.
The chairs are all designed at ROC Wheels’ headquarters at Four Corners. Many of those working in the “Rocket Shop” are part of the Gallatin County re-entry system; former inmates or those who have community service hours to fulfill. Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte even completed his community service at ROC Wheels after being charged with assaulting a reporter on the eve of his election.
The building smells like construction and paint; a small 3D printer sits upstairs for printing wheelchair parts. The wheelchairs are made from kits built by inmates at the South Dakota State Penitentiary.
“There’s no limit to what we can develop here,” Hanson said. He praised the interns hired from Montana State University’s engineering program, including ROC Wheels’ current intern Robert Knutson.
Paul Nokes, an employee at ROC Wheels, said those working on the wheelchairs in the Rocket Shop are learning how to overcome obstacles in real life.
“You’re going to run into barriers,” Nokes said. “You’ve got to learn how to climb over them.”
Hanson said since ROC Wheels started in 1999, the organization has delivered over 10,000 wheelchairs all around the world, including Mosul and East Baghdad in Iraq. Hanson said when soldiers delivered these chairs, they never drew enemy fire.
The first delivery for the ROC Warriors program is slated to happen in October 2019, possibly to Nepal.