Two CA nonprofit leaders win AARP Purpose Prize

Suzanne Potter | California News Service
Health centers like this one in Uganda use We Care Solar Suitcases to maintain reliable power. The nonprofit estimates almost 14 million mothers and newborns have benefited since 2010. Photo Credit: We Care Solar

Leaders of two nonprofits in California have won the 2024 AARP Purpose Prize, which honors people over age fifty who are making a difference.

Don Schoendorfer from Irvine, who designed a wheelchair that can be distributed easily in developing countries through his nonprofit, “Free Wheelchair Mission,” is the first.

Dr. Laura Stachel, founder of We Care Solar and an obstetrician from Berkeley, is second, after an unnerving experience while conducting medical research in Africa drove her to help.

“I was working in a hospital in northern Nigeria in 2008,” Stachel recounted. “I was actually helping on a C-section when the lights went out. And I couldn’t believe it. We were trying to finish the surgery where there was no light in the room. If we hadn’t had a flashlight that I brought with me, there would have been no light to finish.”

She founded We Care Solar in 2010 to provide solar electricity to maternal health facilities. Since then, the nonprofit has equipped more than 8,000 clinics in over 20 countries with suitcases equipped with solar power and medical devices.

Stachel noted it costs about $3,600 to donate a suitcase, ship and install it, plus train the local health care workers, and maintain it at a clinic for five years.

“The Solar Suitcase is mounted to a wall inside the health facility and has four medical/surgical lights, a fetal Doppler, an infrared thermometer,” Stachel outlined. “It has 12-volt DC charging for phones and other devices. And it enables health facilities to work around the clock, seven days a week.”

Purpose Prize winners get a $50,000 donation to their organization and are eligible for another $10,000 through the AARP Inspire Award. The competition allows the public to vote for their favorite Purpose Prize winner.