Published on Wednesday, 30 November -0001 00:00
She is a world traveler on a perpetual goodwill tour. Mary Jane Ponten of Colorado Springs, Colo., this year alone, working alongside several nonprofit organizations, will visit China, Mongolia, Bolivia, Ghana twice, and Taiwan twice, to help train workers serving people with various disabilities. Overall in that capacity, Ponten also has been to Poland, Romania, Ukraine, Cuba, Ethiopia, Peru, Holland and Belgium. The catch: Ponten is age 77, regularly uses a wheelchair, and has cerebral palsy.
The United Cerebral Palsy website claims an estimated 764,000 Americans have a degree of cerebral palsy, which is usually caused by brain damage occurring before, during or shortly after birth. It affects the brain's ability to control muscle movement, and usually doesn't affect intelligence. "I'm really 31 years old," she joked in a telephone interview. "On all these trips overseas, I enjoy everything but the food. I'm used to the long plane rides. In China, [a restaurant] once served me deep-fat fried sparrow with its head still on it, and that was a little difficult for me to eat."
She visits these countries with Mephibosheth Ministry, her own organization, or with Wheels for the World or Friends of the Disabled Latin America, all faith-based groups serving people with disabilities. "I tell God I'm too old and disabled to go," she said. "But I cannot not go. I'm compelled to go. When going overseas, I go as a speaker and usually have a translator. I'm there to show them a person with a disability has value, that I'm valuable to God, and that people with disabilities in other countries are valuable to God."
Everywhere she goes, she teaches pastors and lay people alike that people with disabilities shouldn't be pushed into the back rooms and rows of churches. Her goal for people with disabilities is complete inclusion in every aspect of spiritual life. She was afraid for her life only once. Ponten was in Ghana, a country one-third Muslim, on September 11, 2001. Another time, in China, she was told to quickly board a bus after someone learned that police were in the area. One frustration for her has been having to use a translator, especially in Ghana, where "they speak British English with a Ghanaian accent, and I speak American English with a cerebral palsy accent," she laughed. In 2001, Northwestern College honored her as alumnus of the year.
Contact danieljvance.com (Blue Valley Sod and Palmer Bus Service grants make this column possible.)