Vincenzo Piscopo is paralyzed from the waist down, but says he has neither reason to complain nor inclination to give in. His responsibility, he says, is to give back.

Piscopo – who has worked for The Coca-Cola Company for 22 years – established the Wheels of Happiness Foundation shortly after suffering a debilitating spinal cord injury in 2010. While undergoing rehabilitation at Shepherd Center in Atlanta, he met Father Thomas, a priest from Uganda who had suffered a similar injury but under much different circumstances.

Wheels of Happiness

“When I was injured, we called 911 and I flown to Emory (hospital) by helicopter,” Piscopo recalls. “When Father Thomas had a motorcycle accident, he was left on the ground for hours until someone driving a pickup truck saw him and took him to the hospital where they did the bare minimum to keep him alive before sending him home. He spent an entire year in his bed. No one taught him how to go to the bathroom or get around.”

Thanks to the generosity of a kind-hearted donor, Father Thomas made it to the Shepherd Center. After two months, he returned to Uganda and is now back to serving his congregation and community.

Wheels of Happiness
Father Thomas receives a shipment of medical supplies at his home in Uganda.

Meeting Father Thomas was an “a-ha” moment.

“When I was injured,  I was blessed to have an amazing family, friends, neighbors and coworkers, and I work for a great company with great insurance. My transition back to ‘normal life’ was relatively easy,” Piscopo explains. “Meeting Father Thomas made me realize how many people there are in the world who are not as fortunate. They’re far more vulnerable than we are, but with just a little help, they can get back to living their lives with dignity. My wife, Gabriela, and I knew we needed to do something.”

Inspired to pay forward all the support they’d received during his rehabilitation and return to work, they established The Wheels of Happiness (WOH) Foundation in 2011 to help victims of spinal cord injuries and people with mobility disabilities in underdeveloped countries. WOH provides medical supplies, hygiene products, psychological support and more to help them become independent, reintegrate into society and add value to their communities.

Wheels of Happiness
Enzo and Gabriela Piscopo with members of the Atlanta-based WHO team and board.

Wheels of Happiness
WOH has funded the education of Ybrahim from Kenya for the last four years.

To date, the foundation – which is staffed by 10 volunteers around the world and supported by corporate and individual donors – has helped 70 people in Uganda, Kenya, Colombia and Venezuela. They started out providing basic medical supplies – catheters, hand sanitizers, etc. – before providing wheelchairs, scholarships and financial aid for surgeries and physical therapy. Overseas shipping expenses for these items adds up quickly, so Piscopo said he hopes to soon find a partner to lower costs and, as a result, send more items to people in need.

Most referrals come via word of mouth. Father Thomas has contacted the Wheels of Happiness team with several adults and children in Uganda. One man in Kenya had heard about the foundation and emailed Piscopo requesting a wheelchair. “He said, ‘I sent that letter to you asking for help and never expected an answer’. The fact that these people don’t expect an answer is because they’ve grown up without any answers,” Piscopo said. “That has inspired and energized us to provide answers – and support.”

Wheels of Happiness
A group of men with spinal cord injuries in Venezuela receive a shipment of medical supplies from Wheels of Happiness.

In Venezuela, where Piscopo was born and raised, the foundation hired a social worker to evaluate requests. The team is also training nurses to conduct workshops to teach people with spinal cord injuries how to properly use a catheter. They’re also collecting and sending used wheelchairs to be refurbished and distributed to people in need.

In Colombia, the local Coca-Cola team saw a story on CNN en Espanol about a paralyzed 13-year-old boy who could not attend school because he could not afford a wheelchair.

Wheels of Happiness
A WOH volunteer loads wheelchairs to be delivered to kids with cerebral palsy in Guarana, Venezuela.

“We got him a wheelchair and a bed, and provided financial support to his family, so now he is in school,” Piscopo said. “And more importantly, he can go to parties. His mom just sent us a video of him having fun with his friends. Stories like this keep us going.”

Wheels of Happiness
Yesenia and Cesar from Venezuela receive their wheelchairs.

On Saturday, Nov. 3, the Wheels of Foundation will host its annual fundraising gala in Atlanta. Click here for details.

Wheels of Happiness
WOH has funded the education of Ybrahim from Kenya for the last four years.