Until this past week, Ruben Martinez had to carry his 9-year-old-son, Jason, down the front steps in the boy’s wheelchair whenever the family left their Rockville home.
But Friday, for the first time, Ruben wheeled Jason down a 32-foot-long ramp into the driveway.
The pair was met with cheers and applause from the 11 teens, a counselor and a contractor who had spent the week building the accessibility ramp in a program organized by Washington, D.C., nonprofit Yachad.
The program, called “Ramp it Up!,” teaches high school students carpentry skills and mobilizes the students to build accessibility ramps for low-income families with disabled children or adults. During this session, the volunteers built the ramp for Jason, who has muscular dystrophy.
“We’re very happy with the ramp,” Ruben said. “We expect that this will make Jason more independent.”
Jason’s condition makes it impossible for him to walk or talk coherently. He requires constant care, said Lorraine Magee, Jason’s nurse under Maryland’s Rare and Expensive Case Management program.
Magee recommended the Martinez family to “Ramp it Up!” after hearing about the program from a co-worker.
Yachad mobilizes skilled and unskilled volunteers to repair homes and community buildings throughout the metro area. “Ramp it Up!” was the brainchild of this camp session’s contractor, Louis Tanenbaum, who is a Yachad board member.
There wasn’t enough time in other Yachad projects to build accessibility ramps, so Tanenbaum suggested devoting a program to ramp-building, said “Ramp it Up!” program director Kendra Rubinfeld.
In the program’s eight years, its volunteers have completed 16 ramps.
"It's empowering to accomplish this,” said Lizzie Bubes, a 17-year-old volunteer from the District.
Added Dean Gregman, 16, from Rockville: “It’s tiring. But when I got home every day, I really wanted to finish the ramp.”
The volunteers came from around the D.C. area. They worked from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. each day, and were involved in the construction process from the beginning, helping to take measurements and prepare the site for construction.
“My favorite job was mixing concrete,” Bubes said. “It's fun. Once you get the hang of it, you can do it for hours and it'll feel like minutes."
Volunteers are chosen on a first-come, first-served basis, but Yachad asks for essays and references from applicants to ensure they’re prepared for the difficulty of the project.
“We vet our volunteers,” Rubinfeld said. "These kids are special. This is hard work, and they need to be ready to have a really intense week."
Building materials supplier TW Perry, located in Chevy Chase, provides “Ramp it Up!” with a discount on project materials, Rubinfeld said.
The volunteers met the Martinez family for the first time June 22, at the pizza lunch that celebrated the end of the project. Usually, more communication occurs between volunteers and the families during the project, Rubinfeld said, but because Ruben and his wife, Orbelina Diaz, speak little English, there was a language barrier.
Counselor Josie Krogh was surprised by how well the group of four girls and seven boys worked together. In the past, many “Ramp it Up!” groups had only boys participating.
“This was a great group,” Tanenbaum said.
Although Yachad is a Jewish nonprofit, the volunteers come from all backgrounds, Rubinfeld said.
“While we do teach lessons about tikkun olam — Hebrew for ‘repairing the world’ — we focus more on lessons about the cycle of poverty, as well as teaching what it means to be handicapped,” she said.
Because of the heat, the group went through three to four 24 packs of water bottles every day, and volunteers took breaks in the shade to stay cool.
“Every day was hard, but it was such a worthwhile project,” Marilena Siegel, 16, said. “That’s what kept us going. That, and some water.”