When Saba Macros contracted polio as a child
, it left her with a disability, changing her life and trajectory. But the Fort Wayne woman hasn’t let it stop her from helping others in a similar position. In fact, it’s the driving force behind her advocacy and action.
Marcos, who grew up in Ethiopia, remembers how the disease affected her physical development. Unable to walk, she says she crawled on the floor until about age 5. Then, a series of events drastically changed her life for the better.
“I was 6 or 7 years old when my parents first took me to different kinds of hospital therapies and treatment,” she says. “So after those interventions, I was able to start walking with crutches. And today I’m able to walk, but I still have a shorter leg.”
Now as an adult, Marcos has a slight limp and uses a mobility device to help her walk — a common sight on the streets of her homeland of Ethiopia she says. Despite efforts to combat the disease, the country remains susceptible to an outbreak due to “high cross-border population movement and low population immunity,” according to the World Health Organization
Saba Marcos, founder of Agape, travels to Ethiopia regularly to distribute wheelchairs.
Looking back, Marcos says she was fortunate to come from a family who had the means to pay for medical care. Marcos immigrated to the United States at age 14 and later returned to Ethiopia to visit. Realizing she was now in a position to help, she was also determined to find a way to address accessibility issues.
As the saying goes, where there’s a will, there’s a way. And she found a way to reach people in need. Marcos is the President and Founder of Fort Wayne-based Agape Mobility Ethiopia
, an international nonprofit that fundraises to provide medical-grade wheelchairs to children and adults in need. The organization, in operation since 2019, receives donated wheelchairs from partners in many countries. Wheelchairs and other mobility devices are then refurnished and matched to an individual.
Whether due to polio or another condition, Marcos says families affected by disabilities often feel helpless. Agape is synonymous with hope for those touched by Marcos’ work. As a Christian, she says the business name is a nod to the Greek concept of the fatherly love of God for humans, as well as the reciprocal human love for God.
This contrasts some attitudes and cultural norms that mean people with disabilities are often shunned and discriminated against. She says sometimes those with a disability are viewed as “cursed,” but in her eyes, all persons with physical limitations are whole and worthy of help.
The need for help is dire in a country where it’s estimated that about 19 percent of its citizens live in poverty, according to data from the United Nations
. Food insecurity and political instability have only exacerbated conditions in a country where many live on the margins. Health challenges affect many Ethiopian households, too.
This spring, Agape Mobility Ethiopia provided 67 wheelchairs to disabled persons in Tigray.
“About 17 percent of the population is disabled and might need a wheelchair,” Marcos explains. “The waiting list is still long, but there's much more hope.”
For context, Marcos and her team have touched the lives of 1800 people by donating therapy and rehabilitation equipment. Still, another 3,000 people are on the waiting list. In her estimation, poverty, rural isolation, geographical restrictions, and other factors make it difficult for some families to get mobility devices.
She says Agape is working to break down the barriers endemic to her country. Her team on the ground there works with the Ministry of Health, churches, and other groups to connect with and serve families in need.
Beyond grappling with the effects of polio, the restaurateur-turned-caterer behind Queen of Sheba
, an Ethiopian catering company based in Fort Wayne, knows what it’s like to look a challenge straight in the face. Starting a restaurant and growing a customer base helped her develop personally and professionally — and form a community.
“The restaurant helped me meet a lot of great people here in Fort Wayne,” she says. “And so that's brought out leadership in me — meeting and talking to people. A lot of customers knew about my passion and that helped me gain support early when I started collecting supplies.”
Recently, she’s encountered complications and delays due to the pandemic. Shipping costs represent Agape’s most significant expenses. For instance, a shipping container from the United States costs $15,000 alone to transport.
Once the equipment arrives in Ethiopia, Marcos says they have systems in place to ensure they can reach as many people in need as possible.
Volunteers pledge their time to refurbish wheelchairs to ship overseas.
“When they call our office, we look at our inventory to see what we can do to help,” she says.” If they live far away, they can send a photo and we can try to determine which equipment might best help improve mobility.”
Speaking with humility and passion, Marcos shared her lofty goal of distributing 100,000 wheelchairs by 2030. Agape depends on people to help stateside, too. She explains that they host regular workshops where volunteers can lend their time and talents to repair and maintain wheelchairs. The organization also hosts fundraising dinners, which allow the public to enjoy Ethiopian food while supporting and learning about the mission.
Looking to the future, Marcos says that she’d like to develop partnerships in other African countries and impact more families around the globe.