Although Glen White spends his days in Lawrence, his heart belongs to Peru.
“Remember the old Frank Sinatra song, ‘I Got You Under My Skin’?” White said. “Well, once you meet the Peruvians, you feel like family.”
And White, a professor of applied behavioral science and director of the Research and Training Center on Independent Living at Kansas University, has had plenty of chances to get to know the Peruvians and make them his extended family.
Since 1998, he’s made 14 visits there in an effort to improve the lives of Peruvians with disabilities. As a person who has used a wheelchair himself for the past 46 years, White realizes that accessibility is a challenge in Peru.
“Until recently, there have been no laws requiring accessibility,” he said. “One of my Peruvian colleagues, an architect who is also a paraplegic, helped create and implement the new accessibility laws. But they still need to be enforced, and resources are needed to make the necessary accessibility modifications.”
White’s first visit to Peru was at the invitation of Dr. Liliana Mayo and Dr. Judy LeBlanc of the Ann Sullivan Center of Peru, a nonprofit organization and model educational, research and demonstration center for people with different abilities and their families, and an affiliate of the Life Span Institute at KU.
“They asked me to come down and provide pro bono consultation,” White said. “One of my tasks was to speak to families who had children with intellectual disabilities, so I visited their homes. Some of them literally lived in a grass hut in the middle of a dusty road and slept on old couches.”
For White, this first glimpse of a developing country was “a much different reality” than what he was used to.
“It struck me on that first visit that these people, who lived in a country that had so little going for it, were so happy, in spite of their circumstances,” he said. “The Peruvians had Pacific Ocean needs, yet they had Lake Titicaca resources. Because they were very hard-working, they were able to eke out a living. It’s been a blessing for me to know them, and I believe it’s been a blessing for them to know me, my family, friends and students who have traveled there with me over the years.”
As White continued to return to Peru (sometimes two or three times per year), he was able to connect with many of the top disability leaders there. He obtained grants from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research and the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation to conduct research and training to further build on Peru’s emerging disability leadership.
Along the way, White has made many friends in the country he has come to love.
“I’ve made lots of them — many brothers and sisters,” he said. “They are all like family. These are not superficial friendships. I could go to them and ask for almost anything I might need, and they would help me. And I would do the same for them. For example, one of my Peruvian friends, Maria Luisa Huerta, who has post-polio syndrome and uses a wheelchair, loves sports. She asked me to help her find a special wheelchair for wheelchair tennis games. I found one on eBay and bought it for her. It was in rough shape, but I cleaned it up and painted it, and put new tires on it. She was thrilled.”
No wonder White opened his presentation at the U.S.-Peru Independent Working Summit, held in the Senate Chamber of the Peruvian Congress Building, by saying that “on the outside, I might look like a gringo, but on the inside beats the heart of a Peruvian.”
Chiaki Gonda, a KU student from Japan and graduate student assistant at the Research and Training Center on Independent Living, accompanied White on a trip to Peru last January. She considers him to be her mentor as well as her academic adviser.
“I’ve been involved in the disability rights movement for the past six or seven years and came to KU specifically to study with him,” Gonda said. “I really fell in love with his program and what he does. He is such an inspiration to me, and such a ‘people person.’”
Gonda said that she can really see “a passion for helping people” in White.
“When I saw him in Peru, I didn’t even think he was American, because he was so humble and so bonded to the Peruvian people,” Gonda said. “His Spanish was not fluent, but he communicated with his heart. Everyone came to him, and he made everyone happy.”
White said his upbringing, with parents who were blue-collar workers, helps guide his work.
“I do remember my roots,” he said. “My father told me that it never hurt to be a little extra nice to others. I have always remembered that.
“And as wacky as it may seem, I also reflect back to my visit to London and the sign on the front of the Hard Rock Café: ‘Love All, Serve All.’ I guess that would be my motto, as well. No matter whether I’m in front of a classroom at KU or working with Peruvians to start new enterprises, I want to make a difference in this world.”