Help Mar Menor Many people will be familiar with the HELP association in Torrevieja which provides support to English speaking people who are undergoing a crisis, seeking advice or who need to borrow orthopaedic equipment.

Now, HELP Mar Menor is being formed to provide a similar kind of service for the growing number of English speaking residents of San Pedro del Pinatar, San Javier, Los Alcázares and further south towards Cartagena. Since the idea of HELP Mar Menor was first floated by Sheila Merrett about four months ago, 58 volunteers have come forward to offer their services.

The volunteers are eager to start work as hospital visitors, interpreters, office workers, drivers, fund raisers, as well as storage and maintenance supervisors of any orthopaedic equipment that is donated. The group is currently meeting on the second Tuesday morning of every month at the Las Claras community centre in Los Alcázares. They are now at the stage of becoming officially registered as a charity and are also contacting the mayors of the three Mar Menor towns requesting their recognition and help. What they desperately need to get started though is a suitable premises in the area, either provided free of charge or for a nominal rent, so that they have a centre from which to operate and all their funds can be channelled into the services they wish to provide.

Sheila Merrett herself is a lady with a vision. As well as launching HELP Mar Menor, she would love to open three Shopmobility centres in the three main Mar Menor towns. Having been disabled from birth, she has worked tirelessly for disabled people in the UK and managed to launch a string of Shopmobility stores in Sussex after pursuing a long campaign of lobbying on committees and councils in the area. As a parish councillor she was able to contact people at all levels of local administration and was eventually offered a free premises by a local town council, followed by a series of generous donations of equipment and money. This is the achievement she would like to see repeated in the Mar Menor. "If it worked in the UK, why can't it work here?"

The problems of the disabled here on the Mediterranean coast of Spain are very close to Sheila's heart. She says: "I chose to live in Spain four years ago on medical advice, being a sufferer of osteo-arthritis as a result of dislocated hips at birth. They said a warmer climate would be so good for me, but what they didn't take into consideration is the fact that the houses here are not centrally heated in the winter, have thin walls, ceramic floor tiles throughout and that there are steps and stairs almost everywhere, inaccessible pavements because of high kerbs and very little parking for disabled drivers and passengers. None of these things are good for you if you have arthritis or any other physical disability".

Sheila has found many examples of these difficulties in the Mar Menor area. A classic one is the Los Arcos hospital at San Javier where the only disabled parking space is the furthest away from the main entrance on the other side of the road. The zebra crossing is right next to a lamppost making wheelchair manoeuver impossible. There is a ramp leading up to the main door but it is too steep and the corners are too tight to get a wheelchair around. To add to the frustration, the back entrance to the hospital is ideal for disabled people with completely flat access and ample parking space for ambulances and other vehicles. However it is a No Parking area and a lot of it has been sectioned off with bollards for no apparent reason. Sheila finds that often just a little thought could solve so many of the things that make life a misery for the disabled.

There are places that have made real efforts to help disabled people, but have failed to fully appreciate all their difficulties. An example of this is the new swimming pool in San Javier. They have installed an access ramp, a hoist into the water, a disabled changing room with even a tilting mirror, but unfortunately none of their tiles are of the non-slip variety and are far too dangerous for disabled people to negotiate. It is such a shame when so much effort has been made, only to be spoiled by one thoughtless detail.

Some of the public buildings in the Mar Menor area are completely inaccessible to disabled people. Sheila is unable to even get near the brand new San Javier town hall, or visit the local post office. The post office in Los Alcázares is more accessible, but unfortunately the disabled parking spaces are always filled up with cars parked by inconsiderate drivers. On the whole disabled parking spaces in supermarkets have not been properly thought through. They are often too small or placed far away from entrances. As this year (2003) is the European Year of People with Disabilities, Sheila is campaigning hard to publicise these problems and to call for improvements in the Mar Menor area where many of the difficulties are the result of lack of thought on the part of planners and builders. All this of course is in addition to her commitment to see HELP Mar Menor get off the ground for the benefit of all expats, disabled or able-bodied alike. "My motto is: nothing ventured, nothing gained. That's what I really believe and I've lived on that principle all my life."

What HELP Mar Menor most needs now is a generous sponsor or a sympathetic town council. One piece of good news is that Marcos García Antolín of the Red Cross in San Pedro del Pinatar has offered temporary storage space for donated equipment. "We desperately need a permanent premises for use as an office and to store equipment." Can anyone help? If you can offer assistance of any kind to HELP Mar Menor or would like to receive further information, please contact Sheila on: 968 608 523 or 667 587 187.

This article is published courtesy of CB Friday in association with thinkspain.com

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