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Wheelchair wash topped off with day of pampering

East L.A. nonprofit serving people with disabilities provides manicures, haircuts and fresh makeup.

October 05, 2008|Yvonne Villarreal | Times Staff Writer

Maria Hernandez guided her electric wheelchair along Dangler Avenue's gum-stained sidewalks, carefully going over bumps in the concrete and easing down the sidewalk's ramps.

A few blocks away, on East Cesar Chavez Avenue, was a 20-foot-high inflatable wheelchair. Hernandez, 49, knew she was at the right place.

She, and others with disabilities, traveled Saturday to East Los Angeles for the annual Familia Unida Wheelchair Wash. More that 800 people attended the event organized by Familia Unida Living With Multiple Sclerosis, a nonprofit group that offers services to people with multiple sclerosis.

Attendees were offered a day of pampering. Stations were set up where visitors could have their wheelchairs washed, receive haircuts, get their makeup done and get manicures.

Hernandez was 36 when she was diagnosed with lumbar cervical degenerative disc disease, and has been using a motorized wheelchair for seven years. "So often we feel invisible," she said. "Here, we are seen. It gives everyone a great sense of dignity."

Among the first visitors to make her way down the red carpet that led to the event was Pomona resident Norma Torres, 53, who has multiple sclerosis and has been in a wheelchair since 1988.

But the leather armrests of Torres' Quickie power wheelchair weren't scrubbed by just anyone. Her 93-year-old grandmother, Amalia Tamayo, clad in a yellow "Volunteer" shirt, diligently rubbed the surface of the chair with her aged hands. Torres then received a manicure and makeup application

"I'm usually the one who takes care of her, and I can't do all this, so it's nice to see her get pampered by someone else," Tamayo said in Spanish.

Irma Resendez, 47, of Rosemead, who founded Familia Unida in 1991 after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, said she began the wheelchair wash five years ago after remembering what it felt to be stared at because of her "dirty" wheelchair. "A lot of times, I wouldn't go out because I didn't want to be judged," she said. "If the chair is dirty, it's like you're dirty."

Just a few feet away, four members of the Los Angeles County Fire Department were on their knees, ready to wash another chair. "It's nice to be here and get to know the people in the community," said Capt. Pete Finnerty, 38, whose late uncle had multiple sclerosis. "Plus, getting dirty is no big deal for us."

Anon Zaragoza, 7, of Walnut Grove smiled wryly as three volunteers made sure not to rub too harshly over a sticker of John Cena, Anon's favorite pro wrestler, near the handlebar.

The second-grader, who was born with spina bifida -- a birth defect that affects spinal cord development -- said he was going to show off his sparkling new wheels at school.

But the cleansing isn't all show; it has health benefits as well. "Anything that is frequently touched needs to be disinfected," said Kelly Reynolds, an associate professor at the University of Arizona's College of Public Health.

Routine washes are recommended since wheelchairs and mobility scooters don't stay clean for long. Shortly after Hernandez's scooter was washed, her newly pristine wheels had to make a return trip along Dangler Avenue's dingy sidewalks. "Don't worry. I won't be gone for long," she said. "I might even bring my other wheelchair. That one is really dirty. I was too ashamed to show up with it earlier."

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yvonne.villarreal @latimes.com

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