The Gift of Independence

More than 50 volunteers give the gift of access to 10 Central Oregon residents during the 2009 COBA Ramp-A-Thon.

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by Linda Orcelletto, for The Bulletin

Published: Sat, June 27, 2009 The Bulletin

photo - Mike Davis, of TMT Home Remodelers, builds a ramp during the Ramp-A-Thon.
Mike Davis, of TMT Home Remodelers, builds a ramp during the Ramp-A-Thon. Photo courtesy of Mike Jensen.

photo - Dave Rink, of DE Rink, stands with Alan and Brooke Hewitt. Al was injured on active duty as a United States Marine and was a ramp recipient during the COBA Ramp- A-Thon.
Dave Rink, of DE Rink, stands with Alan and Brooke Hewitt. Al was injured on active duty as a United States Marine and was a ramp recipient during the COBA Ramp- A-Thon. Photo courtesy of Liz Rink

photo- Emily Moore, a ramp recipient, smiles as she completes her first trip down her new ramp, built by Mike O’Neil of SolAire Homebuilders.
Emily Moore, a ramp recipient, smiles as she completes her first trip down her new ramp, built by Mike O’Neil of SolAire Homebuilders. Photo courtesy of Mike Jensen.

 

Alan Hewit, a twice-decorated U.S. Marine veteran, has a true appreciation for the little things in life, so much so that he has made sacrifices for the good of the United States and his family—his greatest sacrifice leaving him reliant on an electric wheelchair in a home that lacks accessibility.

Upon hearing that the Central Oregon Association of Builders (COBA) was accepting applications for homeowners needing accessibility ramps, Hewitt’s wife, Brooke, encouraged him to apply, and reluctantly, he agreed. On June 13, his ramp was built.

More than 50 volunteers participated in COBA’s one-day Ramp-A-Thon Blitz Build to build ramps for 10 homeowners with accessibility needs, including Hewitt.

More than $70,000 in cash, products and in-kind donations contributed by businesses and individuals made the event possible. Yet the satisfaction for those who participated can’t be measured in dollar figures.

“We gave people a measure of freedom and independence back,” said Erich Hohengarten, project manager for DE Rink Construction and one of 10 volunteer builders who participated in the project. “I can’t change my height or race, but I could become disabled this afternoon. It makes you stop to think how accessibility affects everybody.”

The idea for a Ramp-A-Thon began within COBA’s Remodel Council a few months ago, from Mike Davis, of TMT Remodeling, and Susan Duncan, of The ABC’s of Accessibility. The two were familiar with a similar project in the Seattle area in which volunteers build ramps for low-income homeowners with disabilities.

Davis and Duncan asked members of the council for volunteers. Everyone in the room raised their hand. The next step was a wheelchair training exercise that put the ramp designers and builders in the “driver’s” seat. They soon experienced firsthand the challenges faced by people who use a wheelchair, such as negotiating curbs, doors that are too narrow, cross slopes, steep inclines and maneuvering in tight spaces.

The training gave members an appreciation for how seemingly small obstacles present a challenge to someone in a wheelchair.

“Putting ourselves in their shoes had a profound effect on all of us,” said Hohengarten. “We are just a bunch of carpenters who like to build things, so what better way to give back?”

Recipients went through an application process and were chosen by the council based on need and home ownership. The builders then visited each site to draw up the specific plans. All ramps adhered to Amercians with Disabilities Act (ADA) specifications and were universally designed.

Those who use a wheelchair for mobility may not leave their homes as often as they’d like, but not because they are self-conscious about using a wheelchair, but because it is too hazardous to leave their own homes.

Corners, uneven surfaces, steps or ramps that are too steep can be reasons to stay put. Also, the sum of disability payments usually isn’t enough to enable individuals to make the necessary home improvements to aid mobility.

For nearly five years, Hewitt depended on others to carry his powered chair down a rickety set of stairs. Not wanting to be a burden, Hewitt often took the risk upon himself by sliding down the steps to a wheelchair waiting below—a risky proposition at best, but once a Marine, always a Marine.

Hewitt, twice decorated, will quickly tell you others who also served their country are more deserving than he.

Hewitt shares his story with hopes the Ramp-A-Thon will gain the attention it deserves and grow so other families and individuals in the area who don’t have safe, reliable access to their homes might have their needs met.

He hopes that others can experience and appreciate what we might take for granted—the priceless reward of the freedom and independence to get in and out of our own homes.

Hewitt’s other reason for accepting the ramp was to give his wife and son peace of mind that he won’t injure himself once he wheels out the front door.

To his 6-year-old son, Casey, the ramp is the biggest skateboard ramp ever. But to Hewitt, the ramp is a pathway to a life of new possibilities. He now looks forward to getting outside to survey his property, take his son fishing and go into town with his wife for something other than a medical appointment.

“The entire [ramp-building] experience wasn’t about Hewitt being thankful for us; it was about us being thankful for him,” said Hohengarten. “It’s hard to tell who got more out of this.”

The next Remodelers Ramp-A-Thon is already scheduled for June 12, 2010. Homeowners in Central Oregon who are interested in applying for a ramp should contact Mike Jensen, COBA Director of Communications, at 541-389-1058. The application will be considered by a committee based on need and on-site inspection of the candidate’s home.

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