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Strauss Foundation Winner, Recent Grad Works to Improve Wheelchair Accessibility

June 29, 2021
SCI Active Network CEO and Founder Troy Plunkett and recent UC Merced alumnus Joseph Bello ('21).
SCI Active Network CEO and Founder Troy Plunkett and recent UC Merced alumnus Joseph Bello ('21).

In July, Joseph Bello will present his findings for the prestigious Donald A. Strauss Foundation scholarship to United Spinal, the longstanding nonprofit dedicated to overcoming the stigma of disability and increasing inclusivity for wheelchair users. It has taken months of work to prepare, but Joseph is no stranger to persistence.

A recent graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering, Bello (’21) brought a wealth of academic and life experience to UC Merced. A San Joaquin Valley native from the small town of Hilmar, Bello was an active athlete before a severe ATV accident on the sand dunes near Pismo Beach. Bello, a high school football standout, became a quadriplegic at 17 years old.

Bello spent the next few years focusing on rehabilitation and eventually enrolled at Merced Community College where he excelled academically. He channeled his competitive nature into his studies, transferring to UC Merced in fall 2019 where he continued to stand out, this time academically.

“Joseph qualified to apply for the Strauss Foundation scholarship because he was a high achieving student on our campus, something he continued from community college,” said James Barnes, the associate director of learning and support at the Calvin E. Bright Success Center. “The students competing for this award are the best and the brightest.”

Each year, the Strauss Foundation encourages juniors and seniors from 14 California colleges to undertake high-impact projects in public service or social change. The colleges include the 10 UC campuses, Occidental College, Pomona College, Scripps College, Loyola Marymount University and Stanford University. Each campus can submit up to three applicants and each year the foundation awards between 10 and 15 scholarships to students in the amount of $15,000 each.

In this video founder and CEO of SCI Active Network Troy Plunkett explains how to maintain wheelie bars, which keep wheelchairs from tipping over.

Bello’s successful application was tied to his own experience. He partnered with Bay Area-based nonprofit SCI (Spinal Cord Injury) Active Network’s Share a Chair program to create a host of videos on wheelchair maintenance and fitting.

“It was an incredible feeling to win the scholarship. It truly meant a lot that the foundation recognized my academic success,” Bello said. “It meant even more that they believed in my project and were willing to support it, and that they believed in me to be able to carry out this work and help people.”

Getting a wheelchair can take months and many times newly injured individuals are often stuck with cumbersome chairs that are heavy and low-quality. Users can have trouble navigating narrow hallways, corners and bathrooms with the standard-issue hospital wheelchairs and this lack of mobility can wreak havoc on their confidence. In an effort to equip spinal cord injury patients with comfort and confidence, the SCI Active Network gives survivors lightweight manual wheelchairs to bridge the time until they can acquire their own customized chairs.

“People get sent a standard rental chair for three to six months when they’re injured and its exhausting for them,” said Troy Plunkett, founder and CEO of SCI Active Network. “They’re dependent on other people, which is tough mentally on them, and it is like being given a Pinto instead of a Ferrari because a custom-fit wheelchair literally makes that big of a difference in terms of accessibility, transportation and mobility.” 

Like a car, wheelchairs require maintenance and are not one size fits all. Much of Bello’s work with SCI Active Network centered on creating videos about custom wheelchair maintenance, which helps wheelchair users, caregivers, family members and physical therapists. Wheels, axels and the like often require tending to and Bello and Plunkett hope their how-to videos will help people easily find fixes to maintain their chairs in optimal condition.

“I chose this project because I truly understand the need that the Share-a-Chair program fills and I saw the work Troy was doing and what type of person he was and I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of,” Bello said. “Just this last year I began the process of getting a new wheelchair, a process that took me over eight months. I had an existing one that was functional, so it wasn’t as vital to me to get it done quickly, but I still remember graduating high school in a purple wheelchair I could barely sit up in. For someone without a wheelchair with the necessary features, every single day they spend in a good looking, high-quality wheelchair that is fit for them makes a huge difference.”

Bello and Plunkett met over Zoom to plan the topics their videos would cover and write the scripts, and eventually met to film them. Residual funds from the Strauss Foundation scholarship were also used for replacement parts to help the nonprofit fix and maintain its supply of wheelchairs for the Share a Chair Program.

The videos are being launched weekly and available on SCI Active Network’s YouTube channel.

“It’s just a win-win for all of us and we’re so grateful,” Plunkett said. “We’re thankful to the Donald A. Strauss Foundation, Joseph and everyone involved.”