While some children are puzzling out tonight’s homework assignment, 13 year old Harrison Hochman of Los Angeles has given himself a very different kind of assignment: to inspire other children all over the world to make a difference.
Harrison is a pretty typical kid in many ways…he likes school, tennis, swimming, golf, and he collects sports memorabilia. One of his most prized possessions is a personally autographed Pau Gasol L.A. Lakers jersey. What might not be so typical is the extent to which Harrison believes that children can do incredibly big things. “I call it the Wildfire Effect,” Harrison says. “If I can inspire two kids, then maybe they’ll go out and inspire 4 more, then they’ll inspire 8, then 16, and pretty soon we’re really making a difference.”
Two years ago, Harrison joined his family on his brother Tyler’s Bar Mitzvah charitable project. They partnered with the American Wheelchair Mission to deliver 280 wheelchairs to those in need in Israel. The partnership that the Hochman family forged with the American Wheelchair Mission has endured.
“I decided I wanted to experience that kind of project myself. I researched lots of charities. When I got to the American Wheelchair Mission website, one statistic really struck me: The gift of one wheelchair helps not just one person, but sometimes as many as ten. It makes life easier for all of the people who care for that person; all the people who have to help get them from place to place. Even simple acts like getting a snack, or visiting your neighbor to borrow some sugar becomes a lot easier.”
Harrison chose to deliver the wheelchairs to South Africa because of a book he read as a young child entitled “Journey to Jo’burg: A South African Story” written by Beverly Naidoo. He says that he was particularly moved by the hardships the people in the story faced.
The spark was ignited.
With the help of the American Wheelchair Mission, Harrison initially delivered several wheelchairs to residents of inner city Los Angeles and videotaped his experiences. He then sent the video to corporations, foundations, friends and family with an explanation of his plan to deliver hundreds of wheelchairs to South Africa. Harrison raised $84,000; enough money for 560 wheelchairs. Two ocean freight containers full of wheelchairs were on their way to South Africa.
The Wildfire had begun.
Harrison and his family flew to South Africa to assist the American Wheelchair Mission in the distribution of the wheelchairs. During their two-week stay, they traveled to Capetown, Hout Bay, Somerset, Durban, Richard’s Bay, Empangeni and Johannesburg where they personally delivered nearly 100 wheelchairs. Among the recipients were students at a school for the physically disabled, patients in hospitals and rehab centers and various villagers living in the African bush.
There are several moments Harrison will always remember. “We visited one woman who lived 20 minutes off the highway, then we turned left and drove for another 10 minutes on a grass path to get to her house. It was only about 10 square feet. I couldn’t imagine how she was able to live there. She was an amputee who got around on crutches. When we got there, she was pulling crops out of the ground. A really nice lady; welcoming, warm… People are the same everywhere. I think if there were no borders to deal with, we would all be more connected.”
“There was a 19 year old boy with cerebral palsy. He couldn’t make his body do what he wanted it to do. It was such a great feeling when he was seated in the wheelchair, he kept saying, “Yay! Halleluiah!” I can’t put into words the feeling you get. It’s so rewarding. You just have to experience it.”
Harrison’s father, Nathan Hochman tells about another moment during their visit. “I was reminded how often we take our mobility for granted. You see someone who can’t get out of bed by themselves, or go outside, or to their kitchen or neighbor’s house, or into town for a religious service. And to see them move for the first time on their own, it’s incredibly inspiring. One woman lived in a village where the only way the people could receive their pension check was to pick it up in person. This woman’s monthly pension was the equivalent of $120. She couldn’t walk on her own, so she had to pay someone a week’s pension allotment just to carry her in a wheelbarrow each month to get her check. Now she can go pick up her check on her own.”
Harrison’s love for his fellow human beings was instilled early on by his parents. They have taught all three of their children, from a young age, that each one of us plays an important part in this world. Nathan explains, ”A Hebrew word that is part of our heritage is tzedakah, which means ‘justice.’ It is commonly used to signify charity. By doing charitable acts, you bring more justice to the world. Another phrase is tikkun olam, which means ‘repair the world.’ You come into this world knowing it is imperfect. You have a duty and an obligation to repair it. So here’s this 13-year-old kid with a big vision who flew around the world to deliver wheelchairs to people he’s never met. The ability to inspire – that’s what will change the world.”
And the Wildfire spreads.
In Durban, Harrison spoke to a group of some 75 adults about his Bar Mitzvah project. In attendance were the Trustee Chairman of the Wheelchair Fdn. United Kingdom, representing the American Wheelchair Mission, the Jewish Club of Durban and Rotary Club members. When Harrison was finished, he was given a standing ovation as well as an immediate donation from one of the audience members of 100 additional wheelchairs. Little people can indeed accomplish big things.
And what’s next for Harrison? “This experience has opened my eyes to a different world. Most kids don’t think about giving. They think more about receiving. But I’ve learned that giving is kind of like receiving because you are rewarded by the experience. My Mom & I are going to edit the footage from South Africa and put it on YouTube. I’m going to say, “I’m a kid who wants to do this again. Please donate a dollar.” I know we can collect enough donations. But I’m not sure yet where I will go next time.”
One thing is certain: wherever Harrison decides to go next, the flames of his Wildfire are sure to follow.
Tyler Hochman Project Links
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