Meet Dave Talbot

Written by Linda Kirkpatrick on .

In 1955 at the age of 2 ½, Dave Talbot was diagnosed with polio, ironically just two weeks after Jonas Salk announced a preventive vaccine for the disease. He grew up in Arvada, graduating from Arvada High School, never letting his handicap alter his view of life as an adventure.

Initially, he was paralyzed from the disease. Although he was too young to remember, the doctor said he’d not be able to walk without a calf muscle in his left leg. After spending time in a ward at Children’s Hospital in Denver, he began in a wheelchair, progressing to orthopedic braces and therapy, then crutches, finally getting rid of the brace on one leg, then the other.

In the early ‘50s, the fear of polio was rampant in the US. Thanks to the discovery of the Salk vaccine and recent efforts to wipe out the disease, the dreaded viral disease spread by person-to-person contact, contact with infected mucus, or contact with infected feces, has been eradicated in all but a few Third World countries such as Northern Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, with only 222 cases reported worldwide in 2012.

Prior to its decline in the US, polio left many crippled or in metal chambers called Iron Lungs, machines that encased their bodies from the neck down and breathed for them due to lack of muscle control.

Never deterred by the crippling disease

In high school Dave lettered in football as a middle linebacker, competed as a wrestler, enjoyed a 10-speed bike, and cultivated a wanderlust that would be evident throughout his lifetime. In college he was captain of the fencing team and earned a medal in cross-country skiing.

“I didn’t even know I had restraints,” he said years later. Walt Disney’s Jiminy Cricket was his inspiration, exciting him with travel/adventure films that fueled his desire to explore the world and try things that most would find intimidating.

His participation in an Outward Bound program in 1970 had him ascending steep mountainsides with a 75-lb. pack near Ouray and Telluride. After admitting to having trouble keeping up the first few days, he learned that using an ice axe made it easier to maneuver his body in the rugged terrain.

In the early 1970s he bicycled across Europe and ran with the bulls five times in Pamploma, Spain, when he was flicked into the air once, flying about 15 feet. Not eligible for the military, he focused on his ability to work with his hands and his skill in working with people. Dental hygiene was his first profession, taking him to New Mexico and then Mexico where he learned to perform tooth extractions. He later worked at a mission hospital with high infant mortality in Appalachia and served as the fire chief in the rural town with just a single firefighting vehicle.

After marrying, Dave and Candice Talbot became foster parents to 10 youngsters.

In the early 1980s the Talbots lived in Israel, working on a kibbutz, one of hundreds of rural absorption communities started in the 1930s and 40s for those escaping Europe. He found himself in the center of Christianity, Judaism and Islam – an enlightening experience, he noted.

“The intensity of conflict builds a sense of street wisdom,” he says of his experiences.

Photography exposes him to an opportunity to help others with a similar handicap

Throughout his years, photography has been a love, first a hobby and later a profession. He and Candice have been professional wedding photographers for 32 years, just recently retiring.

In 2005 while working on a documentary film about women and orphans in Uganda, Talbot had observed a woman whose right foot was touching the back of her shoulder. While editing film, he began noticing people in the background, many who were crippled. He knew many crutches were used temporarily by patients in the United States, and oftentimes wheelchairs were parked in garages or storage closets after an elderly patient died – or many of these devices ended up in landfills because of a lack of marketability in the US once used.

The inability to pay for assistance caused an absence of such devices in African communities. In 2006, he set out 55-gallon drums to collect used crutches at local businesses in the Denver area. Thanks to an article about his efforts in The Rocky Mountain News, he collected 235 pairs of crutches. Then faced with the dilemma of how to distribute them, he met a Rotarian working on water projects in Africa, and learned of the possibility of adding to a trans-Atlantic container being sent to Jinga, the second-largest town in Uganda.  That was the start.

Mountain Foothills Rotary had been searching for an international project when they discovered Dave Talbot and his new venture for collecting and distributing mobility devices to those in need. The Rotary Foundation – along with the World Health Organization and UNICEF – is strongly linked with helping to reduce the number of cases of polio.  The tie with Rotary International was a match made in heaven, as the worldwide network is a natural for collecting used crutches, wheelchairs, and other mobility devices at the grassroots level.

In 2005 he and Candice formed Crutches 4 Africa. “The ‘4’ stands for crutches, canes, walkers, and wheelchairs,” Talbot explains. Baby joggers, bicycle trailers for hauling children and prosthetic limbs have since been added to the list. “Braces used by polio survivors are in high demand in Africa,” he adds. His initial goal of sending 1 million units of mobility devices is well underway with more than 51,000 units already sent to 15 countries in Africa and Mongolia. Rotary clubs in 12 states have joined with Mountain Foothills Rotary to collect everything from canes to baby joggers to relieve the hardships of people in Third World countries.

“Lives are changed and nations move forward when all the citizens are able to participate in the life of that nation,” Dave maintains, saying so often immobility keeps crippled people confined to their own small villages.

Talbot likes to create local heroes in the various countries he serves by utilizing locals in the process. He believes it builds ownership and pride in the program and cuts down on cheating in the system. In Africa where 50% of Africans don’t own a pair of shoes, polio is still an issue, easily conveyed by open sores on feet and unsanitary conditions. In addition, poor driving conditions and reckless drivers produce numerous crashes and amputees, Talbot points out.

Talbot has been to Africa eight times. He’s had the privilege of seeing two 18-year-old boys take their first steps – one on crutches, one with a walker. He tells of people coming from all over when there’s a distribution of crutches and other devices. On one occasion, a 49-year-old man was brought in a wheelbarrow because he couldn’t walk; he weighed just 62 pounds and was reliant on his mother to lift him for every necessity. Because of his condition, he’d hardly been out of the hut he called home, as the community where the distribution took place didn’t even know he existed, Talbot explained.

In addition to individuals who donate single units, Talbot has secured sizable donations of devices from the two largest distributors – Carex and Nova – and works closely with national drugstore chains such as Walgreen’s. Nursing homes and service projects by school groups are also significant sources.  The effort “involves as many people as possible,” he says of the collection activity.

Holding a 'green card' for Evergreen

While not a resident of Evergreen, he’s an active member of the Mountain Foothills Rotary Club. “I have a ‘green card’ for Evergreen,” as he puts it, referring to his status as an honorary member of the community. It was Rotary’s devotion to helping people that attracted him to the international organization; it was the camaraderie of this particular club that causes him to drive up from his home in Washington Park to attend Wednesday night meetings. “I’ve found family,” he says.

Financial support for Crutches 4 Africa comes mainly from family foundations, Lookout Mountain Church and Rotary fundraisers. Money is used to pay for shipping the donated devices in 40-foot containers. The cost for a shipment runs about $7,000, including the cost to clear customs.

Back on crutches

Since his late 40s, Talbot has been back on crutches himself, not uncommon for those who progressed beyond crutches decades earlier. But Talbot makes the most of his disability, feeling it puts him on the same level as those he’s trying to serve when distributing the devices he collects.  People outside the United States tend to have a limited view of Americans, he points out, as their views are often based on the image that Hollywood portrays.  There's an instant bond when people with handicaps see someone who's walked that mile in their shoes coming to help them.

End Polio Week

Coincidentally, this week (Feb. 18 - 23, 2013) has been designated End Polio Week with celebrities putting out commercials and magazines highlighting the all-out effort.  Texting "Polio" to 90999 to make a donation and confirming the return email will help.