For sixth year, Norwich pawn shop owner organizes wheelchair giveaway
Norwich — As Phil Pavone took the microphone Sunday morning in the Holiday Inn and said hello to the crowd gathered in the ballroom there, someone in the audience piped up.
Pavone wasn't wearing a red suit or a white beard on Sunday — he was wearing a sport coat and white ball cap with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's slogan, 'Make America Great Again' written on it.
But he was playing Santa Claus, gleefully giving out more than 60 motorized wheelchairs to people who had arrived at the hotel looking for a faster way to get around.
Pavone, the owner of AZ Pawn of Norwich and Danielson, has been organizing the wheelchair donation program, which he calls The Gift of Mobility, for six years.
Each year he advertises around the region for residents who need a motorized wheelchair but cannot afford one. Volunteers collect the donated wheelchairs, batteries and chargers, and Pavone pays to have them restored and then gives them away.
The first chair this year went to Eugene Gynther, 101. Gynther, a Pawcatuck resident who served in the Navy during WWII, leaned on a walker as he made his way briskly across the event hall when Pavone called his name.
"It's wonderful, I can go out in the yard," he said, getting settled in the chair.
Ryan Seidof, 36, had driven to Norwich from from Jermyn, Penn. He heard about the giveaway from a friend on Facebook who shared information about the event.
Seidof said he has fought to get his insurance company to pay for a motorized chair, for years, without success.
"They told me I'm not old enough to qualify — I may be disabled, but I'm not old enough to qualify," he explained.
Taking the microphone Sunday morning, Pavone made no apologies for his social conservatism or his outrage at an insurance system that denies people like Seidof the equipment they need to get around.
"This giveaway comes with a warning," he said. "We are politically incorrect, we salute our troops and our flag, we say... 'Merry Christmas" and we support the Second Amendment."
Pavone gave a speech similar to the one he gave at last year's giveaway event, lamenting the U.S. health care system and the fact that many people had been denied insurance coverage for a motorized wheelchair despite being immobile.
He had outfitted a dozen volunteers with identical Trump hats. The idea, he said, was that he was doing his part to make America great, again.
"This is not great," he said. "Look around the room, there are some people who have been stuck in their homes for a year. I have your letters — it's sad."
Pavone said he supports Trump's candidacy for president despite an incident at a campaign rally last month in which the billionaire businessman mocked and imitated a New York Times reporter who has a congenital joint condition that limits the flexibility of his arms.
"I saw that...I don't know if it was intentional," he said. "It certainly didn't look good...yes, he's boisterous, but he knows exactly what he's doing."
But the people at Sunday's event weren't there for politics.
Stephanie Cicciotti and her daughter, Danielle, had arrived at the hotel from Preston to pick up Danielle's friend Mallory Akern and her new wheelchair.
When they arrived, they found that Pavone was giving out extra unclaimed chairs and that they could take one for Danielle Cicciotti, 21, who usually walks with the assistance of a dog.
Now that Cicciotti may get a job at Mohegan Sun, she said, she could use a pair of wheels.
"We thought we would just pick up Mallory," she said.
Gynther, sitting comfortably in his new chair, carefully put his finger on the controls and zoomed across the hotel's driveway, a grin spreading across his face.