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Shmuely Tebbitt, left, with Bryon Riesch, whose charitable foundation provided the boy with a new wheelchair, thanks to the initiative of Shmuley's classmates at Hillel Academy in Milwaukee.
Shmuely Tebbitt, left, with Bryon Riesch, whose charitable foundation provided the boy with a new wheelchair, thanks to the initiative of Shmuley's classmates at Hillel Academy in Milwaukee.

For 14-year-old Shmuely, recess wasn’t always his favorite activity. While his classmates headed outside or to the gym, Shmuely had to hang back.

It wasn’t that he didn’t want to play basketball or baseball, but the teen, who has spina bifida, had outgrown his wheelchair. Not only that, but the wheelchair he’d been using for more than five years was heavy, bulky and falling apart. And when he wasn’t using the wheelchair, he was using crutches and pulling his entire body with his upper arm strength.

“My hands serve as my legs when I am standing, so I couldn’t use them for basketball or baseball, things like that,” says Shmuely. But, wheelchairs are expensive with even basic models going for several thousands of dollars and, and his family’s insurance would not cover a new model.

Shmuley with some of his friends
Shmuley with some of his friends

Tired of seeing their friend struggling just to walk into school and not being able to join them for recess or on outings to the park and even, sometimes, to synagogue on Shabbat, a group of students at Hillel Academy took matters into their own hands to help their classmate get a new wheelchair.

Shmuely’s friend, Avi, came up with an idea. He discussed his plans with his mother, an attorney, who suggested the students try and find a grant that might help pay for a wheelchair. Their search led them to the Bryon Reisch Paralysis Foundation, a Wisconsin foundation that helps those with spinal injuries and neurological disorders.

While Avi’s mother wrote a formal proposal, the kids began writing letters to encourage the foundation to help Shmuely.

Leading the charge was Avi Pullin, who has been friends with Shmuely for the last few years.
Leading the charge was Avi Pullin, who has been friends with Shmuely for the last few years.

“Writing everything is sometimes hard,” says 12-year-old Rebecca Kalmar, who participated in the letter-writing campaign. “It’s hard to put things into words, but I knew Shmuely and wanted to help him because he’s a friend.”

In her letter, Rebecca wrote that despite being in a wheelchair, “[Shmuely] is very positive and his friends can always learn from him. He is a very kind and thoughtful person who loves nature. … He likes to have fun whether he is catching grasshoppers in the grass or playing games on the computer.”

“I think Shmuely needs a new wheelchair because he has trouble in school and in the neighborhood in getting around and keeping up with me and his other friends,” Avi wrote. “My friend Shmuely’s old chair has trouble with the brakes and is hard to push so he can’t participate with us. … It would make a huge difference for Shmuely to have a new chair because he could do so many more activities with us.”

Rebecca Kalmar, reading from the letter she sent to the Bryon Reisch Paralysis Foundation, a Wisconsin foundation that helps those with spinal injuries and neurological disorders.
Rebecca Kalmar, reading from the letter she sent to the Bryon Reisch Paralysis Foundation, a Wisconsin foundation that helps those with spinal injuries and neurological disorders.

Clearly the students were onto something because their campaign caught the attention of Bryon Riesch himself, and recently the school held a special assembly where Reisch officially presented the new, sleeker and more lightweight wheelchair to Shmuely.

“I feel very privileged to have very loyal friends and am also very excited,” says Shmuely, who proudly notes he scored his first two-point shot in basketball while a local news crew was filming a story about the wheelchair dedication.

Devorah Shmotkin, principal of Hillel Academy, praised her students at the ceremony.
Devorah Shmotkin, principal of Hillel Academy, praised her students at the ceremony.

As for Rebecca, Avi and their classmates, they don’t think they did anything all that special, even if the grown-ups around them know they did.

“It’s just helping out your friend,” Avi says. “And if you can, you should and I think a lot of people would do it if they could.”

On Tuesday, the school held a special assembly where Reisch officially presented the new, sleeker and more lightweight wheelchair to Shmuely.
On Tuesday, the school held a special assembly where Reisch officially presented the new, sleeker and more lightweight wheelchair to Shmuely.

“I feel very privileged to have loyal friends and am also very excited,” says Shmuely, who proudly notes that he scored his first two-point shot in basketball while a local news crew was filming a story about the wheelchair dedication.
“I feel very privileged to have loyal friends and am also very excited,” says Shmuely, who proudly notes that he scored his first two-point shot in basketball while a local news crew was filming a story about the wheelchair dedication.