By Fred Koenig
Most people are familiar with the basic story of PET – how Mel West, a retired United Methodist pastor, felt called to do something to help people with disabilities in other countries who have no means to move about. He started building Personal Energy Transportation, or PET devices, with volunteers and shipping them around the world. The legend is a true one, and lives on today, but has evolved into a ministry that surpasses the image of a couple of senior citizens tinkering in a shop.
There are now 23 affiliate shops that are building PETs in various locations across the country, and one shop in Zambia. PET Missouri-Columbia is just one of the 24, but it is the largest, building about twice as many PETs as the next largest affiliate. PET Missouri has a goal of building 28 PETS per week. In October they were hitting 29
“For every PET that is built, we have no idea where it is going,” said PET Missouri director Gary Moreau. “We have PETS in 100 countries.”
Moreau has been director of PET Missouri for two years. He’s originally from Columbia, and grew up in Wilkes Boulevard UMC and Fairview UMC, but spent most of his professional life working in Minnesota for the United States Department of Agriculture. He first learned about the PET project at a mission fair at the United Methodists Men’s annual meeting.
When he retired to Columbia, he started volunteering at PET. His first job there was cutting lengths of chain for the chain drive on the PETs from a big spool of chain.
“Mel hated cutting chain,” Moreau said. West doesn’t have to cut chain anymore. He is semi-retired, but still serves as director emeritus. West opens the mail, deposits the checks and writes the thank-you letters. He’s there most days.
PET Missouri has about 100 volunteer workers who regularly build the PETs. The hands-on labor at the shop in Columbia, sometimes referred to as The PET Shop Boys, are representative of an old-boys club, in the most respectable possible sense of the phrase. Although most are retirees, there are a couple of generations present – there’s the Greatest Generation that are West’s age, which is essentially World War II veterans who are at the 90 mark or better, then there are the young guys, people like Moreau who retired less than 10 years ago.
There are about 48,000 PETs around the world now. The PET shops have started producing refurbishment kits to get some of the old PETs back up to speed.
When the PET was first made, the cost was $250; 20 years later the cost is still $250. Most of the materials in the PETs built in Columbia are donated by volunteer parts makers across the country. The Columbia shop builds three styles, a standard large PET, a smaller version for children and small adults, and a pull version for people who don’t have the ability to use their arms.
The PET affiliates supply to PET International, an organization comprised of several members who work out of their homes at various locations in the United States, including Columbia. They ship through a Non-Government Organizations (NGOs), who fund various container shipments of aid supplies around the world.
West developed many partners through the years, and the close working relationship makes it a little hard to tell in the PET shop were one ministry ends and another begins. They work closely with the Rainbow Network, the Container Project, and have their own sewing machine project. Linens for the container project are donated by local hospitals, and prepared by volunteers from four local United Methodist churches.
PET Missouri had the opportunity to host all the affiliates of PET International in October. About 100 people from affiliates registered for the annual conference for PET International in Columbia, and an additional 76 people came to the celebration dinner.
A special guest at the banquet, and present for all of the Conference, was Seun Oke. She is a 26-year-old Nigerian woman who received a PET in 2005. PET International, Inc. hosted Oke for a national mobility awareness and promotional campaign from September 29 through November 3. She stayed with Moreau part of the time, and also traveled to various destinations in the U.S.