Nearly 100 motorized wheelchairs given away in Norwich

Norwich — Amy Farina said she'll now be able to take better care of her children because of her new motorized wheelchair.

On Sunday, Farina, who has had multiple sclerosis for the past 10 years, was one of almost 100 people with disabilities who were scheduled to receive free motorized wheelchairs from Phil Pavone of AZ Pawn, who each year works with a long list of community members and groups to provide the "gift of mobility" to those in need.

Farina, a single mother from Glastonbury with two 7-year-old sons, said that as her MS has progressed, keeping up with her sons has become an increasing challenge. 

"With MS you need to conserve energy, so walking around with a walker is using it all up in the first 10 minutes of your day," Farina said.

But having a motorized wheelchair will help her keep up with them.

"It's mind-blowing, it's great, I had no idea anything like this was out there," she said about Pavone's giveway. "It's wonderful my kids get to see this."

One of Farina's sons, Michael, said his mom's new wheelchair made him happy. He hugged her as a camera crew from NBC's "Today Show" filmed them.

Last year, CNN covered the event. And state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, as well as Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom, were in attendance Sunday. It's evidence of what Pavone said is a growing energy around the effort, the only one of its kind in the U.S., he said.

"It's gotten huge," he said. "To date, after this giveaway, we've given away almost 700 motorized chairs, changing the lives of 700 families."

Pavone is a pawnbroker and Vietnam veteran. During his childhood, his mother was constantly sick, so he knows the type of burden that can put on a family, he said during opening remarks to about 200 people gathered in Norwich's Holiday Inn.

Perhaps that's why Pavone had the idea to start the event when he couldn't get rid of a couple motorized wheelchairs in his shop more than a decade ago. Around Christmas, he placed a newspaper advertisment to see if anyone wanted the wheelchairs. The ad asked people to tell him their stories and why they needed one of the wheelchairs. 

"I got 60 letters," Pavone said. "Some people were so severely handicapped that I actually went and bought four more out of pocket for them, and it was at that time I realized how many people were out there in dire need."

Motorized wheelchairs can cost between $4,000 and $25,000, Pavone said. For months in advance, Pavone and volunteers amass donated motorized wheelchairs and look for letters of interest from people describing why they need one. Then, Pavone and volunteers refurbish the vehicles and, using charitable contributions, buy new batteries for them.

On Sunday, Pavone was quick to note the help of volunteers, including veterans, retired police officers, small business owners and employees, and personal acquaintances such as Pavone's landlord and brother.

"Whenever you want anything done, go to any bar near the end of happy hour and ask for help," Pavone joked about his army of volunteers.

Ruth Masin received a motorized wheelchair Sunday, and as was the case for others, she thought it a significant upgrade over her regular wheelchair.

"It's quite compact, it looks like it will get me into smaller places that I can't get into now," Masin said. "My house, I can't get into my bathroom. The doorway is too narrow."

Osten invited Pavone to Hartford in February to testify in favor of a bill she is sponsoring that would require insurance companies to provide more motorized wheelchairs to people in need. She took the opportunity Sunday to try and gain popular support for the bill, which she is still trying to get passed since it stalled in the last legislative session.

"We're going to put it in again," Osten told the crowd to applause. "We're going to get this done by working together across the aisle."

In the meantime, Pavone's grassroots event is a stopgap measure that has improved the lives of many. Ask Michael Farina, Amy's son — he'll tell you that now, his mom can play soccer and help with homework more than she could before.

s.spinella@theday.com

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