"There's always a way"

Apr 22, 2003 01:45 PM EDT

When most people clean their attics, they find chipped dishes, outgrown toys and used clothing. A garage sale is the next natural step. But when the Rev. Tim Bolton cleaned his attic and found his two old legs, he knew there wasn’t much of a market on the garage sale circuit for a couple of used prostheses.

"They don’t make very good lamp stands, and you can’t sell them on eBay," the 40-year-old amputee says with a laugh. "Seeing those legs sitting there, I knew that someone in need could use them if I could just figure out a way."

Laughter comes easily to Bolton. A friendly bear of a man, he has served as part-time pastor of the Alford (Ind.) United Methodist Church for two years and works at a nearby school with behavior problem students. Sometimes, however, the brown eyes of this former U.S. Marine reflect the trials he’s been through since losing his right leg and suffering severe burns during a conflict in the Philippines in 1984.

Before the incident, the military was Bolton’s life. After 18 months in the hospital, 42 trips through the burn "debridement" tank (to scrape off burnt skin) and 36 surgeries, he hobbled out of the hospital – literally – on his last leg.

"I loved the military, but I’ve known since the age of 12 that God wanted me in his ministry," Bolton admits. "He had other plans for my life, but I did the ‘Jonah thing.’ I ran. When I got hurt and spit out on the beach, I knew it was finally time to start listening.

"Unfortunately, I don’t always hear God very well the first time He speaks to me," Bolton says with a grin. That fateful discovery in his attic now leads Bolton along another of God’s paths. Out of his wish to see those two old legs help others, "Operation Arise and Walk" was born.

Operation Arise and Walk is a collection point for used prostheses. Set up in Bolton’s garage and carried over into the church basement, the aim is to help land-mine victims around the world.

With the help of his congregation, Bolton repairs, restores and readies the used prostheses for shipment. So far, 40 prosthetic legs have helped amputees in Central America through Limbs For Life, a nonprofit organization based in Oklahoma City. Another shipment is almost ready to go.

In the church’s small basement, two long tables are covered with all shapes and sizes of prosthetic legs standing ready to serve. Each has a story to tell. One delicate leg was donated by a 4-year-old girl in Virginia. Another came from a widower, sent only days after his amputee wife passed away. One prosthetic leg, donated by a Davis County, Ind., farmer, has a strange hole drilled down the middle.

"This guy’s son tried to make a lamp stand out of his old leg as a joke," Bolton says, laughing. "I told you it wouldn’t work."

A high-end prosthetic leg can cost up to $60,000. A moderately priced leg is about $13,000. Because Bolton was injured in the line of duty, the government pays for his prostheses, which need replacement every three years. For land-mine victims in war-torn countries overseas, however, the price to stand on their own two feet is far out of reach.

Land mines are called "the perfect soldier" – they never sleep and never miss. It is sadly ironic that most victims are civilians who are injured years, even decades, after the military conflict has ended. UNICEF estimates that 30 to 40 percent of all land-mine victims are children.

Although the use of land mines in military conflicts has decreased, it is believed that they have been used by up to 15 governments and more than 30 rebels groups worldwide since May 2000. Reports estimate more than 30 million land mines are strewn across 90 countries.

Humanitarian efforts to clear land mines are under way in 34 countries. Projects like Adopt-A-Minefield (a high-profile charity supported by the late Princess Diana, Heather Mills and Paul McCartney) try to raise awareness of the problem, encourage mine clearance and offer assistance to victims. According to their research, the cost of making a land mine is between $3 and $75. In contrast, the cost of clearance, including support and logistic expenses, is $300 to $1,000 per mine.

After a local newspaper picked up Bolton’s story, callers flooded him with offers of used prosthetic limbs. People arrived on his doorstep at all hours with legs tucked under their arms, he says. He picked up many donations personally. His congregation (which averages about 90 people for Sunday worship) has helped every step of the way. His wife, Jackie, is one of his greatest supporters.

"She is an extremely beautiful person – spiritually and physically," Bolton says. "I met her at my lowest point after the incident, and she grabbed me by the hand and helped me through it. She has an awesome relationship with God."

Although grateful that Limbs for Life has helped him reach so many in Central America, Bolton’s goal is to provide prosthetic legs to amputees in the ravaged country of Eritrea, Africa.

"The suffering in Eritrea is in biblical proportions – famine, locusts, storms, disease. Because of land mines, one in every 10 people is missing a limb."

Putting a letter in the mailbox is like tossing a bottle into the sea, so Bolton was amazed to receive a reply from the wife of the U.S. ambassador to Eritrea. So far, efforts to help amputees there have met with slammed doors.

"Anyone going into Eritrea with prostheses or anyone receiving them would be killed," Bolton explains. "In a country where people are murdered for a pack of cigarettes, imagine the worth of a prosthetic leg. Right now, it’s just too dangerous."

He continues collecting used prostheses for amputees in other countries, but he has not given up hope on Eritrea.

"There’s always a way," he says. "If people pray for us, the doors will open. God works through us in unexpected ways – if we’re attuned to him."

Then he laughs. "And I’m learning to listen to God when he speaks to me the first time."

By Albert H. Lee
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