Six years ago, Lino Lakes resident Karen Calrin set a goal to collect 5,000 manual wheelchairs from all over Minnesota by 2020. Even though she didn’t quite make that goal, she and all her helpers have not given up. 

It's all a part of Wheels Up, which collects used wheelchairs to be restored by prisoners and sent to countries who have fewer resources.

“Once we get 250 to 300 chairs, we can get a volunteer semi to come. We have a volunteer day where we all load the chairs into the semi,” Carlin explained. “Now it’s rolling, and that snowball is growing.” 

Carlin is a retired Delta employee. Back in 2015, which marked the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Delta headquarters requested its employees do something in their own communities to recognize and honor people with disabilities. Carlin was inspired by Joni and Friends Wheels for the World, an organization that provides “the gift of mobility and hope of the gospel to those affected by disability worldwide.” 

Since its inception nearly 30 years ago, Wheels of the World has collected, refurbished and distributed 232,378 chairs. Carlin wanted to start a local effort for the organization (Wheels Up) and came up with the Minnesota 5,000 campaign, which aimed to collect 5,000 chairs by the year 2020. 

Carlin’s neighbors Jodi Krinkie (retired Delta employee) and Gail Wells (who now lives in Forest Lake) were happy to join the cause. 

When the group first started collecting chairs, Carlin said they were lucky if they were able to fill one semitrailer full of wheelchairs in a year. In 2020, the group collected two semitrailers full of wheelchairs. They are well on their way to filling a third. Since 2016, Wheels Up and Joni and Friends Minnesota have collected over 2,500 manual wheelchairs. 

The organization also accepts parts of chairs, such as cushions and footrests as well as other items such as canes, walkers and crutches.  

The chairs get distributed to 15 federal, state and private correctional facilities in 10 states, and inmates are trained to restore the wheelchairs to like-new condition. Once the wheelchairs are ready, they get sent off to the places that need them most. Some locations have included Mexico, Cuba, Uganda, China, Guatemala, El Salvador, Poland, Philippines, Dominican Republic and more. 

“In a some of these countries, some of these people have never walked. They have never been mobile they sit on edge of town and they are not part of community. This doesn’t give them their life back, it gives them their life to begin with,” said airport employee and volunteer Gail West. 

West is heading up the effort to decorate the semitrailer that the wheelchairs are stored in at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport. 

“We started thinking about how we could incorporate the community with this. We want to have different areas of the community have their voice come through the art,” she said. West is drawing up some designs, and community members will be invited to fill in different colors of the mural. 

As is usually the case with any volunteer effort, the group could always use more help. Carlin said, “We want to invite and challenge anyone in the community who is feeling locked in, like this pandemic has shut them down, to jump in. We want all the help we get.” West added, “If people just have a small amount of time … this is not a huge commitment. There are so many possibilities here.”  


Lead Editor Shannon Granholm can be reached at 651-407-1227 or

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