(Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore…)
It all started as a search for a new wheelchair ramp. Every time Tavonia Randall needed to take her mother out of the house, she had to push her in a wheelchair down a steep ramp at the back of their Park Heights rowhouse. The maneuver was dangerous for both Randall and her mother, Gladys Cole, 73.
Once they left the house that they share, "We would stay out all day," Randall said. "That ramp was a killer."
Randall stumbled across the website of Rebuilding Together Baltimore as she sought a new ramp, and to her surprise, the nonprofit agreed to outfit her home not only with a wheelchair lift, but also with many other wheelchair-accessible features.
The volunteer-based organization works to renovate the homes of low-income families in Baltimore City and Baltimore County to make them safer for children and the elderly. Executive Director Bonnie Bessor said that the need for disabled-accessible housing is growing, but rehabilitation projects are often difficult because most Baltimoreans live in closely packed, narrow rowhomes.
"Most older Americans would like to stay where they are when they grow old rather than being in a nursing home," Bessor said. "But in a lot of these older Baltimore rowhomes, they're just not easy for people in a wheelchair to get around in, and there's also not very much room to build out."
That's where Rebuilding Together steps in. Volunteers work to expand doorways, install safety railings and do as much as they can with the interior of a home to make it safe and comfortable for a person in a wheelchair. Although a typical project lasts only a day and focuses on small safety features, the organization recently received a $33,000 grant from the U.S. Administration on Aging, which paid for the extensive renovation project for Randall's home.
Randall had applied for a renovation with the agency in October, but until the grant arrived, the organization did not have the cash to do such a large project.
Members of the organization met with Randall this spring to plan the improvements. Construction began in early July, and is set to wrap up within the next week. Volunteers have expanded the home's porch, installed a wheelchair-accessible bathroom on the first floor, and expanded the doorways and the kitchen so that Cole can more easily get around in her wheelchair. A wheelchair lift, in place of a ramp, will soon be installed on the side of the porch.
"When we have the type of funding that's available, we can do projects that are extensive like this," Bessor said. "Working with families like this is why I do this job, because they're so wonderful and so thankful and we know that we're going to make this huge impact on their lives and make it much easier for them to just live day to day."
In addition to renovating the house, volunteers have also begun renovating a neighborhood playground near Randall's home. The playground was so overgrown that project manager Jim Diel didn't even realize that it was a playground at first. Randall also lives with her two young grandchildren, and the volunteers decided that if the overgrown playground were renovated, they could offer not only Randall's children but also the other neighborhood children a safe place to play.
"We saw that there was this overgrown playground, and we knew that we also had to do that. We couldn't walk away from this project without also having to clean that playground up, it was just the right thing to do. We do try to beautify the community as well whenever we can with our renovation projects," Bessor said.
Though Randall said that she might have eventually been able to install a new ramp, she said she never would have been able to put in a wheelchair-accessible bathroom on her own.
"All the people working here have been a great team, I couldn't ask for more," Randall said.
Cole is simply excited to finally be able to turn around in her house.
"Y'all did a beautiful job. I was real mean because I couldn't do nothing, but now I can go in there and spin a wheelie!" Cole said. "I love it. I feel like queen for a day."