IRVINE, Calif. - Free Wheelchair Mission's Miracle of Mobility Gala is celebrating its 16th year on Thursday, July 25.

A wheelchair is certainly a form of transportation, but for Dr. Don Schoendorfer, it’s as much a set of wheels as it is a life-changing mission.

He’s checking a chair out for safety.

Dr. Schoendorfer started Free Wheelchair Mission in 2001, but his idea for building affordable wheelchairs to give to people in developing countries was initially spurred over 30 years ago.

While on vacation with his wife in Morocco, he saw a woman crawling on her hands and knees across a busy street. 

“What were we supposed to do about this scene? And there was nothing we really could do, because there was no place to buy a wheelchair and it probably wouldn’t have worked anyway,” said Schoendorfer.

As a biomedical engineer who went to MIT, he knew he could help.

“They had satisfied about 0.1 percent of the need so that meant 99.9 percent of the people still needed a wheelchair, even though they’ve needed one for decades,” he said.

He made the first 100 chairs in his Orange County garage using the backs of lawn chairs. Some 1.2 million wheelchairs later, the organization has donated chairs to 93 developing countries.

The chairs cost about $80 -- a fraction of the cost of even the most affordable chairs in the U.S. -- making it possible for the public to buy chairs that the non-profit ships and disperses through local organizations.

Schoendorfer uses a test track to help gauge the wear of a wheelchair over time and to ensure it can weather conditions like the bumpy roads typically found in developing countries. According to the World Health Organization, over 75 million wheelchairs are needed for disabled people around the world.

As the nonprofit embarks on it’s next adventure -- virtual reality Oculus technology that can transport people to these developing areas -- it continues to work toward the goal of mobility for everyone. The VR experience debuts at the gala. For more information, click here.

“If you have the personal blessing to pick them up and put them in a chair, or you can just watch it and you see their attitude change in a matter of 20 seconds, 15 seconds, 10 seconds, it’s almost like I can’t recognize that person. He doesn’t look the same as when he was sitting on the ground,” said Dr. Schoendorfer.

He remains committed to giving people more than a set of wheels, but rather, the gift of independence.