Strength in Numbers
[CTV News Winnipeg “21st Anniversary”]
In 1998, Gwen Buccini, a librarian at Holy Cross School, attended her daughter’s basketball game at St. Mary’s Academy. She noticed that one of the parents was going around collecting pop can tabs for Girl Guides which were going to be turned in for money to purchase a wheelchair. Gwen thought this was an innovative idea and followed up with the parent three months later to see if it were possible to get a picture of the recipient. As it turned out, the fundraiser fell apart and no wheelchair was purchased.
Gwen decided to have her school continue collecting tabs and take on this new venture. “No one explained the process to me on how it all worked,” she laughs. “I did some research and found a similar program existing in Aurora, Ontario. I thought this was a great idea and that I should get my Holy Cross students involved. It seemed like a wonderful opportunity for them to learn that when we all work together we can make a positive difference in the world!”
Gwen discovered the reason for only collecting the tabs of cans as opposed to the whole can came down to cleanliness and storage space.
She realized there was strength in numbers so she started contacting schools to see if they would be interested in joining the cause. After two years, six schools were able to collect enough tabs to purchase the first wheelchair which cost $5,000 - $6,000.
This success story grabbed the attention of many local community papers in Winnipeg. “Momentum really started to take off,” says Gwen. “More schools joined and even companies/groups and many individuals started phoning the school to get involved as well!”
The snowball effect took hold and presently there are 148 schools, 205 companies/groups and over 150 individuals collecting tabs. “I’ve been doing this now for 21 years and am overjoyed with how many wheelchairs we’ve been able to provide,” she says. “The most expensive power wheelchair to date that we purchased cost $18,000 and took us two years to collect enough tabs to pay it off.”
“It takes approximately 1500 tabs to make up one pound which converts to only 60 cents,” says Gwen. “There are approx. 50,000 tabs in a 30-40 lbs. bag and around 300 – 350 bags (14 – 18 million tabs) get filled each year.” An annual presentation is held each June at Holy Cross School’s Gymnasium where the recipient(s) is given their brand-new specialized wheelchair. Additionally, the recipient(s) for next year is introduced so that everyone leaves feeling motivated to keep the momentum going!
For 19 years, Anthony, Gwen’s son, (who had Down syndrome) was her biggest helper! He bagged 80% of all the tabs that came in every year. “He was such a great worker!” Gwen says. “This was something that we could do together that felt really good and gave Anthony a sense of purpose!” Anthony passed away just two days before the 2017 wheelchair presentation at the age of 32.
The Rehabilitation Centre for Children has been working with the Tabs for Wheelchairs program since its founding and assisted in choosing recipients. “In the last few years, SMD has also played a huge part in who we have chosen to receive specialized wheelchairs,” says Gwen. Stephanie Semotok, a Rehabilitation Counsellor working out of our Eastman (Steinbach) Regional Office has been the main contact. “Many clients would really benefit from having access to using either a power or manual chair but can’t afford an extra say $5,000 to acquire a second wheelchair. This is where the Tabs for Wheelchairs program fills that gap. The additional chair means more freedom and accessibility to those clients.” Gwen compliments this by saying, “Whatever they need, they will receive!”
Gwen has been thrilled with SMD’s support over the past few years as it has opened up access to more children making the program easier and more efficient. Nominations are accepted from any region in Manitoba and the recipient must be under 18 years old.
This last year, SMD staff submitted three clients to the program and through the added support of generous donations; one has already received their chair and two will be receiving their specialized wheelchairs in 2020.
This year, approximately 400 bags (14,000 lbs. or 20 million tabs) were turned in and recycled at Western Scrap Metals Inc. which has been the largest amount brought in to date. This amount converts to approximately $8,500.
Gwen says, “I live to be purposeful and I love helping and meeting people, especially the families!” She pays tribute to Anthony by adding, “His passion for bagging the tabs made it an even greater purpose for me! Not only was I helping individuals receive specialized wheelchairs but I was able to spend valuable time with my son doing something that he loved to do! Anthony was such a pleasure and truly a privilege to raise! I learned a great deal from him!”
To get involved, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Fun Facts about the Tabs for Wheelchairs Program:
- Donations of $20 or more can receive tax receipts
- Tabs drop-off location and where all the tabs are bagged by the individuals at the Day Program is at Trailblazers Life Choices Inc. (1069 Autumnwood Drive)
- Western Scrap Metals Inc. (18 Sutherland Ave.) has a running account so that any scrap brought in (any size from cans to old refrigerators) can be donated directly to Tabs for Wheelchairs
- Wesman Salvage in Brandon (855 49th St. East) does exactly the same thing as Western Scrap Metals Inc.
- Average prize of wheelchairs is $4,000 – $6,000
- YRC Freight transports all tabs from Holy Cross School to Western Scrap Metals Inc. every June at no cost to the Tabs for Wheelchairs program
- In 2018, the program received a generous donation of $30,000 which was used to purchase extra specialized wheelchairs for seven young people in Manitoba
- St. Boniface Bag Co. donates all the white bags.
- HT Mobility Medical (451 Henderson Hwy) is where all the wheelchairs have been purchased.
- Winnipeg Free Press “When a small thing becomes massive” 20th Anniversary article