The power of a chair: Student gives back while abroad in Spain

Makenna Sewell traveled abroad to Spain last spring with two power chairs, but returned with just one. Her second power chair is still in Seville, providing mobility to a woman who would not have otherwise had access to such technology.

Before leaving Spain in May, Sewell, a senior business administration major with muscular dystrophy, gave her second power chair to a 27-year-old business student at the University of Seville, where Sewell was studying.

Senior business administration major Makenna Sewell gave one of her power chairs to a business student in Seville, Spain, at the end of her semester abroad. Photo courtesy of Makenna Sewell

The woman, Maria José, whose last name is not included for privacy reasons, can’t walk, Sewell said, adding that the power chair allows her a level of independence and freedom to explore her city that she hadn’t experienced before. Maria José could not be reached for comment.

“This is something that she never thought she would be able to receive,” Sewell said. “She really changed my perspective and I know I was able to change her perspective by giving her this chair.”

Sewell said that her power chair was the reason she was able to fully experience Seville. While abroad, Sewell noticed many people navigating the cobblestone streets with manual push wheelchairs and saw an opportunity to give back.

Sewell didn’t want to give her second power chair to just anyone, she said. She wanted it to be truly transformative for the recipient.

Through connections at the University of Seville, Sewell got in touch with Maria José, and once she met her, Sewell said that she knew she was the right person.  

“I knew that I could better someone else’s life if I gave (the chair) away,” Sewell said. “She was just the perfect person.”

Sewell’s muscular dystrophy is progressive and results in fatigue and weak limbs. She uses power wheelchairs, which she is able to access with the help of insurance, for mobility.

“I realized just how fortunate I am to have the resources and a government that’s willing to help pay, if necessary,” Sewell said.

Maria José’s family took Sewell out to lunch to thank her for the chair, Sewell said, where Maria José talked about how she hadn’t been able to participate in social events because she didn’t have a reliable wheelchair.

“Part of the culture in Spain is to end your day with all of your closest friends, and just kind of celebrate your day,” Sewell said. “That’s not something that (Maria José) necessarily has been able to do, because her wheelchair wouldn’t be able to get her there and get her home. It’s horrible that physical limitations or lack of an appliance would deter her from being able to go out with her friends.”

Dean of Students Jerry Price believes energy is finite and that it is important to acknowledge the extra energy students with mobility disabilities expend in their daily life when faced with accessibility challenges. Price said that Chapman is always working to improve in this area.

“We’re just continually looking beyond what satisfies code requirements (at Chapman) to what is really going to make a meaningful difference for the students and employees who need that service,” Price said. “It’s really important that we try to help them.”

Sewell is no stranger to the power of giving back. When she was diagnosed with type 3 spinal muscular atrophy – a form of muscular dystrophy – at 2 years old, her local community in  Oregon banded together to fundraise for her first power chair.

Sewell’s parents, who were recent college graduates when she was born, could not afford such a high-technology wheelchair at the time, and Sewell credits her community for helping her access that technology at such a young age.

“People I don’t even know, were so willing to extend a hand and help me and my family,” Sewell said. “I think that’s why I was so quick to jump on the idea of being able to help someone else in that way.”

Sewell’s desire to make a difference in Maria José’s life has paid off, she said, adding that since receiving the chair, Maria José has been able to experience her city in a new way.

“That’s really what I wanted it to be for her,” Sewell said. “And that’s exactly what she’s expressed.”

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