Heather Murtagh/Daily Journal
Eleven-year-old Ben Werdegar sits in front of the Woodside Bakery and Cafe. He began playing guitar to raise money to buy Iraqi children wheelchairs on March 1, 2008, and wont stop until the war is over.
With his guitar in hand, 11-year-old Ben Werdegar sits on a bench and begins to play.
His guitar case open and bills inside, people of a variety of ages stop to listen and ask questions. They aren’t as interested in Werdegar’s music as they are in the poster and information he has set up next to him. On a poster board are the following: "I play for peace. Wheelchairs for Iraqi kids. Please help these disabled Iraqi kids get wheelchairs. My goal is to raise $1,000,000. Every penny counts.”
Werdegar began playing for the cause on March 1, 2008. Thus far, he’s raised $13,117.62 — or the equivalent of 43 wheelchairs.
Werdegar is sure he’ll reach his goal of $1 million.
"I want to play until the war is over or every kid [who needs one] has a wheelchair,” he said.
Music came to Werdegar in an interesting inspiration. At 3, he went with his dad to grab coffee and saw a homeless man playing outside. The sight inspired Werdegar to pick up the toy guitar he had at home. He has yet to put down the guitar. His efforts have even inspired his little brother Zak, who turns 8 today, to play.
"He’s a wonderful human being,” said Scott Gossage, one of Werdegar’s teachers at the Longay Conservatory of Guitar in Santa Clara. "We’re all really proud of Ben and inspired by the fact that he wants to work in the community in this way.”
Frank Longay, director of the Longay Conservatory, added "This is a boy with a big heart.”
When the tsunami struck on Christmas 2004, Werdegar decided to do something for the kids. He played in the rain and donated the profits, said his mother Helen Werdegar. It was a similar inspiration that got Werdegar working for Iraqi children. A news report was e-mailed to Werdegar’s mom. He saw her reaction to the children in Iraq needing help and decided he could help through his music.
"I can really talk through my guitar,” he said.
Werdegar, who is a fifth grade student at Woodside Elementary School, began playing in front of the Woodside Bakery and Cafe nearly a year ago — with the owner’s permission of course.
Before he began playing, the Werdegar’s reached out to Brad Blauser from WheelchairsForIraqiKids.com. Blauser, originally from the Dallas-Fort Worth area of Texas but now working in Baghdad, began working to get Iraqi children wheelchairs at the urging of a colleague.
"A battalion surgeon asked me for them, as he’d see kids on just about every street of Mosul (not kidding) pulling themselves along the ground,” Blauser wrote in an e-mail interview. "Also, on medical missions in the city people would bring their disabled kids to him and ask him if he had medicine to help their children affected with birth defects or who were maimed by explosions.”
Blauser sent an e-mail to his contact list. Within a month, there were 31 pediatric wheelchairs on the ground. Each wheelchair costs $350 through a partnership with Reach Out and Care Wheels, or ROCWheels.org. The cost covers materials and the labor is done voluntarily by inmates at South Dakota state prisons. Wheelchairs are then transported via the military.
Each chair is made from aircraft aluminum, making each lightweight, with the ability to be adjusted to fit a child’s individual needs. The wheelchairs actually retail for $3,000 to $4,000.
"Children come in all sizes, shapes and twists depending on their level of disability. This wheelchair will accommodate the needs of disabled children, and actually adjust to fit their needs as the children grow,” Blauser said.
Werdegar’s efforts to help were not always welcomed. He described people not being respectful or understanding of the cause. On the other hand, Werdegar has had one friend from the conservatory join him playing. The money raised resulted in a number of donated wheelchairs, including some Blauser estimates will be received later this month to be distributed to children in the slums of Sadr City.
For more information about Ben’s efforts visit www.iplayforpeace.net. For more information about efforts to get wheelchairs to those in need visit www.wheelchairsforiraqikids.com or www.rocwheels.org. Ben often plays during the weekend in front of the Woodside Bakery and Cafe at 3052 Woodside Road in Woodside.
Heather Murtagh can be reached by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 105.