A ramp to better understanding

Volunteers learn life lessons while making a home accessible

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Click here to enlarge this photo
Brian Lewis⁄The Gazette
Potomac resident Naomi Heilweil from the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville works on a handicapped accessible ramp with Nathan Einstein from Springbrook High School at the Wheaton home of a disabled resident. Both youths are part of a Jewish volunteer group called Yachad.

Five years ago, Jean Calixte’s life changed dramatically when he was hit by a truck. The accident left him in a coma for four months, paralyzed him from the waist down, and gave him permanent facial and brain injuries.

Calixte’s injuries were also hard to deal with because his family could not afford to make his home properly accessible. Without a wheelchair ramp, Calixte has spent most of the past five years in his home in Wheaton.

Last week, his life changed again — this time for the better.

On Friday, skilled and unskilled volunteers came together through Yachad, a Washington, D.C.-area Jewish community organization, and used their time and hard labor to show Calixte that there were people out there willing to help.

‘‘You don’t know what this means to me,” Calixte said from his room while the volunteers worked outside on his ramp. ‘‘These people are the answers to my prayers.”

Every morning between June 19 and 23, 11 high school volunteers, a carpenter and a counselor came to Calixte’s house to build a proper porch and ramp, and install a lift so that he could get in and out of his house with ease. The group was one of two that participated in the annual Ramp it Up! camp program. While Yachad serves low-income households in and around the Washington metropolitan area, this was the first year that both houses were in Maryland. The other group of about 12 teenagers worked on a ramp at a home in Cheverly.

Calixte’s home was chosen long before the construction began and was referred to Yachad by Rebuilding Together, an organization that also rebuilds and modifies homes for the elderly and disabled in Montgomery County.

Before the construction, the house had a very steep concrete sidewalk. Calixte said he fell when he tried to make it down by himself. He said the incident hurt him physically and emotionally and he has seldom left his house since.

While the ramp will give Calixte more freedom and peace of mind, it is also shaping the lives of the people working on it.

‘‘A lot of people take for granted what they have,” said Sam Hollman, 15, of Rockville. ‘‘Being here shows we should appreciate more.”

Hollman, along with other high school students from Montgomery County, are using this opportunity not only for the required community-service hours, but also for the lessons that they can learn. Their camp counselor, Brian Fink, used a portion of each day to discuss important issues regarding social advocacy and how Judaism ties into community service.

Fink said he told the volunteers about Jewish text that says it is everyone’s responsibility to keep people safe and to help those who are disabled. He said he uses these texts to teach these students that community service doesn’t just better the situation for one particular person, but for society as a whole.

Part of the lessons taught to the volunteers is also to be more vocal in advocating to the government for change in laws and policy.

‘‘While we do this service and it’s wonderful, it’s not the ideal. There are better systems,” Fink said.

Some volunteers said that the lessons really help shape the bigger picture of what they’re doing. Jake Danoff, 15, of Rockville said he doesn’t only think that the government and community have a responsibility, but that individuals also need to raise awareness and respect for disabled people.

‘‘Sometimes kids laugh and snicker at disabilities, and it’s depressing,” he said.

Naomi Heilweil, 15, and Ellie Dugan, 16, said they were given a lesson in which they were asked to figure out a budget for a single-parent teacher who earns $40,000 a year. They said living on that amount of money as a single parent was a lot more difficult than they thought.

‘‘It was scary to hear that people are working hard and not able to feed their children,” Heilweil said. ‘‘The information was eye-opening.”

Donations and grants received by Yachad helped pay for the ramps. Audrey Lyon, the executive director of the program, said that Calixte’s ramp cost about $12,000 to $15,000 and that included a free architectural plan, a discounted contractor and free labor. It would have cost the family at least twice that much to hire someone to do it, said Lyon.

Alan Kanner, the carpenter in charge of the building of the ramp, owns a construction company called Added Dimensions and is on the board of Yachad. He said that he made the switch from working on affordable housing to regular residential construction and likes to work with Yachad to continue to serve the community.

‘‘This gives me an opportunity to give back to the community and be part of an important educational effort for kids, ‘‘ he said.

‘‘This was a great experience,” said Danoff, a sophomore at Thomas S. Wootton High School. ‘‘I learned the value of labor and understood what people in this county have to go through just to get by.”