Disabled veteran Bill Dobbins had an extra wheelchair, which is how ‘Bill’s Wheels’ was conceived
Free wheelchairs and scooters for those in need
425 Dalton St., Grass Valley
Hours: 9 to 11:30 a.m., Wednesdays only
When Navy veteran and Pearl Harbor survivor Bill Dobbins found himself confined to an electric scooter whenever he was outside of his home, he began to see the world through different eyes.
Everywhere he went, he began to notice the people around him who moved with limited mobility. While out at his favorite Nevada County restaurants, he’d see families struggling to get their loved ones from the car to the table. So when someone offered Bill an extra electric wheelchair, he turned it down.
Instead, he put the word out, hoping to find someone who really needed a wheelchair but couldn’t afford it, or whose insurance wouldn’t cover it. As it turns out, that was just the beginning.
‘GO TO’ GUY
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A member of Knights of Columbus No. 1875 in Grass Valley, a Catholic fraternal organization dedicated to providing charitable services, Bill became the “go to” guy among his fellow members when it came to donated electric wheelchairs and scooters.
“Within a short period of time his garage was filled with used handicap-assistance devices, all donated from the community,” said Bill’s son, Mike Dobbins. “His Knights buddies volunteered to help restore equipment for those in need. Pretty soon he began receiving donation offers and requests as far away as the Bay Area. Many of them were veterans.”
Bill even set up a mini test-driving course in his Grass Valley driveway, where he gave lessons to new potential users before he’d allow them to take an electric wheel chair or scooter home.
“That’s the way my dad rolled,” joked Mike. “He was a 30-year Navy Chief Boatswain’s Mate and Pearl Harbor survivor — it was his way or the highway.”
When Bill’s health began to decline, he asked his Knights brother, Wylie Moutard, a retired electrician, to take over day-to-day operations. Other members of the organization stepped up as well.
“Bill had a way of roping people in,” said Wylie, with a laugh. “He knew me and I got suckered into it. You just couldn’t say no to the guy. If it’s the right thing to do, you do it.”
In 2016, Bill died just a month short of his 96th birthday. In addition to being a bonafide hero who had suffered through four war-related back surgeries, late in his life he was once again commended for service above self.
Determined to carry on Bill’s project, Wylie and the Knights approached St. Patrick’s Church in Grass Valley about donating a space for a workshop where “Bill’s Wheels,” could offer free electric wheelchairs and scooters to anyone in need. The shop is now located adjacent to Mt. Saint Mary’s Academy on Dalton Street in Grass Valley.
Today, the shop is filled to the brim with scores of donated wheelchairs and scooters, some of which are nearly new. Others require a significant amount of repairs, which now are mostly done by a small crew of five, and only on Tuesdays.
“Some of these expensive chairs are essentially brand new but the factory won’t sell us parts because we’re not a dealer,” said Wylie. “The only supply shop in town has closed down.”
As of Monday, Bill’s Wheels had given away a total of 339 wheelchairs and scooters, with many more waiting for repairs and donated funds. Batteries alone can cost as much as $600 per chair. The organization spends about $500 a month on batteries, not to mention parts. While the nonprofit Knights of Columbus continues to help subsidize the project, monetary donations are always appreciated, as are volunteers to help with repairs. Donations of motorized scooters and wheelchairs in good, repairable condition are greatly appreciated, said Wylie.
“We don’t claim to be experts,” said Wylie. “We either fix them or throw them away.”
All items are given away free of charge and can be used as long as needed. Recipients are simply asked to return items when they’re no longer needed so they can be given to someone else.
“We don’t have a waiting list — it’s first come, first served,” said Wylie. “Give-away day is only one day a week, Wednesdays between 9 and 11:30 a.m. Many recipients have been veterans or homeless individuals, but all you have to do is come through the door in need of a chair or scooter, and we’ll help you load it up.”
Volunteers bring a variety of skill sets to Bill’s Wheels. For example, while “handyman” Doug Epperson has overseen renovation of the workshop, Marco Del Rio helps create pamphlets, business cards and signs for the nonprofit organization. Why do they do it? Because it makes people happy, they say.
“At least half the people we give wheelchairs to are so moved they can’t find the words,” said Wylie. “One kid from Nevada Union High School just about hugged me when we gave him a chair.”
“This wheelchair has made a heck of a lot of difference,” said Buster Putnam, a retired Grass Valley veteran who is disabled. “The last chair was faulty and the wheels wouldn’t lock. I used to fall occasionally when I tried to sit down. This one locks. I’m so grateful.”
Needless to say, Bill’s son, Mike, who is editor of The Wildwood Independent, is proud of his father’s military and community service, which was a part of this daily life until he died.
“I can’t put into words how proud I am of this man,” he said. “He was the classic grump with a heart of gold, the first to see a need and figure out a way to fix it. He shunned credit for this project but I believe it is what kept him alive and sane after my mom’s passing in 2005.
“I’m humbled by his courage, compassion and integrity. He’s a very hard act to follow.”
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.
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