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Wings on my Wheels

Extract from the graphic biography. The drawing shows a person pushing a women in a wheelchair across a pedestrian crossing at UVic.

The graphic biography, Wings on my Wheels, memorializes the story of UVic donor Donna Pistell, who attained her dream of attending UVic to study anthropology while in her forties.

Donna Pistell defined her own lifetime of adventure and achievement, defying the expectations of others. Her intrepid spirit lives on through a unique endowed student award at UVic. 

Donna Pistell was surrounded by friends when she passed away at her home in Sidney, BC in 2020. She was 80 years old and living independently in her own condo—something doctors in 1940 declared would never be possible, due to the brain injury she sustained at birth that resulted in severe cerebral palsy.

Those same friends, who had been at Pistell’s side for many of her life experiences, decided to memorialize her remarkable story in a book. The 24-page graphic biography Wings on my Wheels chronicles Pistell’s journey from a child who struggled to communicate, to a confident, adventurous adult who attended university, wrote and spoke publicly, advocated for other people with disabilities, took sailing lessons and travelled locally and internationally. Gradually, advances in technology—a personal computer, the internet and a power wheelchair—had given Pistell the increased mobility, independence and social connection she craved since she was young.

Four panels from the graphic biography showing different scenes from Donna's life.
Some panels from the graphic biography depicting Donna's travels and activism.

After Pistell’s death, her friend of 50 years, Sachi Tamura, found some of Pistell’s oldest personal essays.

“She had hopes and dreams from the beginning right up to the end,” Tamura shares. “She had a wide imagination and imagined being able to travel to all these places and be an archeologist.”

During her 40s, Pistell studied anthropology at the University of Victoria and worked as a research assistant for one of her professors. “To actually find herself qualified to go to UVic and sit in classes with people who had an equal curiosity in the subject—that was a huge dream fulfilled,” says Tamura.

Finally, at age 70, she achieved her dream of a trip to Greece, where she spent a month visiting museums and archaeological digs. In her will, Pistell created a legacy fund to facilitate this kind of travel experience for UVic students with severe disabilities. She named it the TED Fund in honour of her parents, Ted and Eleanor (plus Donna), but also to express the fund’s purpose: travel experience for disabled persons.

Wings on my wheels book cover showing a woman in a wheelchair that has wings and appears to be flying.
Each student who received the TED award will also receive a copy of the graphic biography.

“The whole idea of the award was 100 per cent Donna. The details of it and everything,” says Tamura. “And I think she was just thinking of this person that she had been, that didn’t have the opportunities… Its true gift will shine through because it will meet the needs of the person who receives it.” 

Pistell continually defied people’s expectations of her, living a life rich in learning, travel and friendship. Her legacy lives on through her friends, this book, and the endowed fund at UVic that will help other students achieve their travel dreams. As Tamura puts it, “People come and go in our lives, but Donna was never forgotten.”

Learn more about how to set up a legacy gift at UVic

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