After graduating from the E.J. Ourso College of Business in 2015, Michael Panther Mayen started using his newfound entrepreneurial skills to spread a message of hope throughout Africa.
“Being from Africa, and then having the opportunity to come to America, I realized I had a chance to do something to bless other people,” Mayen said. “When you’re blessed, you have a choice: you can either keep it to yourself or share it.”
Mayen’s home in South Sudan did not have any medical facilities to help him when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis as a 10-year-old. After a two-year wait, he was finally admitted to a hospital in Kenya. Missions Doctor Tim Mead performed surgery on Mayen to save his life, but his motor function never returned.
Now, Mayen’s non-profit organization, Living with Hope, is sharing mobility devices and empowering people living with disabilities.
Disabled people in Africa are often cast to the side, with little to no resources, Mayen said.
“They are seen as people with no value,” Mayen said. “They literally crawl on the ground. There are people just laying in their homes waiting until they die. They don’t have any chance at life.”
Mayen was given a second chance when Mead and his wife, Jana, helped Mayen stay in Kenya and finish school. Once he graduated high school, the couple took him to the U.S. to look at colleges.
Although he was originally looking at Michigan State, Mayen decided on LSU because of the warm weather. Mayen planned on leaving if he didn’t like it after the first semester, but ultimately felt welcomed by the University community.
“I thought I was going to be a little different, being in a wheelchair and being from Africa,” Mayen said. “But all of the other students and the professors just embraced me.”
Mayen was elected Homecoming King during his senior year in 2015 and enjoyed his time as the president of the International Student Association, executive director of Students Outreach in Student Government and founder of the LSU Disability Student Organization.
“LSU was a perfect fit for me,” Mayen said. “It was truly my home.”
Mayen also heavily credits his background with business and finance as one of the major reasons he was able to successfully start a non-profit.
Living With Hope has already made two trips to Kenya, distributing almost 1,000 wheelchairs to people in need.
On each trip, Mayen is accompanied by a team of physical therapists and mechanics. He said team members became emotional when over 1,000 people showed up for the 200 wheelchairs they brought on their first visit in September 2018.
“Most of them cried, seeing these people with joy,” Mayen said. “They literally come to us crawling on the ground, and you just changed their whole life. They can sit on a wheelchair with dignity.”
For their next trip in July, Mayen said, the team doubled its efforts so it could bring more wheelchairs. The next trip is scheduled for March, and Living With Hope has collected over 400 wheelchairs so far.
Wheelchairs are sometimes donated by churches and schools, but pediatric wheelchairs are harder to find, and usually have to be bought new. In Kenya, the cost of a pediatric wheelchair is $270, and the cost of a shipping container is $11,000. Only the upper class or those with connections can afford the exorbitant prices.
Living With Hope is currently accepting wheelchair and monetary donations to pay for pediatric wheelchairs. There will also soon be opportunities for interested volunteers to join Mayen and the team of physical therapists and mechanics on service trips.
Mayen said he has been in contact with the University, and hopes to start a program for engineering students to design specialized wheelchairs that can maneuver rugged landscapes.
“I would love to build a factory there and produce wheelchairs,” Mayen said. “There could be a special type of ‘LSU Wheelchair.’”
An estimated 35 million people in Africa are in need of wheelchairs, according to the Living With Hope website. Mayen said he hopes to eventually spread his work to other areas of Africa besides Kenya, and that the people of Kenya may be able to start building and distributing wheelchairs themselves.
“I just want to let these people know that they are special and you can be somebody in life,” Mayen said. “That is hope right there.”