After Jerry Otis became partly paralyzed in 1985, his therapists told him he would never work again. But the former sawmill worker doesn't like people telling him what he can't...
After Jerry Otis became partly paralyzed in 1985, his therapists told him he would never work again.
But the former sawmill worker doesn’t like people telling him what he can’t do.
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He went to work as a volunteer, eventually founding a nonprofit organization. He built 53 wheelchair ramps this year, balancing tools and pieces of equipment with his crutches and designing plans from the seat of his wheelchair.
“He’s got a personality that’s pretty hard to put down, and he’s also got a pretty wide stubborn streak,” said Lorraine Cronk, the board treasurer for the Regional Access Mobility Program, or RAMP, the nonprofit that Otis founded.
Gov. Gary Locke’s office awarded Otis in October with the Governor’s Trophy, which recognizes disabled people who make an outstanding contribution to the state.
Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon recognized Otis last week for his work with RAMP.
Otis’ nonprofit fills a major need in Snohomish County, said Sean Barrett, the executive director of the Disability Resource Connection, an Everett independent-living center that provides services to the disabled. There aren’t many agencies that build ramps for people, he said.
RAMP has no paid staff members. Four volunteers carry cellphones to take calls, and a nine-member board meets a couple of times a month. The nonprofit builds ramps and removes other obstacles to access to people’s homes. Most of the organization’s work is in Snohomish County, but Otis will build ramps all over the region.
Otis relies on donations, requiring homeowners to pay only what they can afford. He recruits members of his union, the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters Local 131, to help him build ramps. But he’ll take any help he can get, enlisting family members, church groups, high-school students and neighbors.
After years of volunteering with other organizations, Otis founded RAMP in 2002 to avoid the rules and bureaucracy that can sometimes inhibit charitable projects. Now he builds ramps one at a time, designing them for people while sitting in their living rooms, talking about their needs over coffee.
“Our four-letter word is ‘will,’ ” he said.
He showed up at JoAn Kremel’s Bothell home with a load of lumber this month, planning to build a wooden ramp. But upon further examination, he decided to pour a sloped sidewalk. He sent Kremel to a store for some cement while he and a volunteer got to work breaking up the front walk.
“That’s the whole mission,” he said. “Our whole purpose is to let people live where they want to live.”
It seems like a simple thing, but Otis knows $1,000 worth of wood and a few days of labor can change life for people who use wheelchairs. Volunteers built a ramp for his Mountlake Terrace home nearly 20 years ago. His own disability, he said, “helps motivate me because I’ve had the experience of being told that I can’t or I shouldn’t.”
Each ramp is personal to Otis. He loves to relate stories of people’s reactions when they can finally roll out the door to pick up the mail or to see what the weather is like.
“I can talk about just about every client we’ve ever had and tell you almost verbatim the circumstances and situation,” Otis said.
He has helped kids, elderly people, people dying of cancer and suffering from genetic diseases.
Otis, 59, became disabled after brain surgery. He isn’t sure what caused the problem that led to the surgery; doctors guessed it may have been caused by a high-school football injury.
He started to volunteer almost as soon as he got out of the hospital, accepting the fact that he and his wife, a nurse, would have to subsist on her salary and his disability and pension pay. He’s never gotten depressed about his disability, he said. As he builds ramps and helps people’s physical needs, he inspires their spirits, too.
“Every single day, when I push my little girl down that ramp, I’m singing,” said Linda Phillips of Monroe.
Otis helped build her family a ramp so that Phillips wouldn’t have to carry her daughter Autumn, 3, who is severely disabled and needs a wheelchair.
Phillips said she found Otis at a difficult time, as she was coming to terms with the fact that her daughter would probably never walk. Someone at a hospital told her about Otis. The Phillipses have 11 children, five of whom are adopted and have special needs. Otis recruited some of the older kids and members of the Phillipses’ church to help build the ramp.
“Jerry was here every single day,” Phillips said. “He worked harder than any of them. There were days when hardly anyone else was here, and he came anyway.”
When Otis was building a ramp for Everett Greenhalgh’s mother-in-law last month, Greenhalgh said he kept wanting to help Otis because of his disability. He soon learned that Otis was capable of getting around and doing the work.
“I finally got over the urge of trying to respond to him every time he moved,” he said.
Otis was unsteady as he helped volunteer Eric Nabors rip out the Kremels’ front walkway. Holding one crutch, he could carry small pieces of concrete to a pile on the other side of the driveway, helping to clear the way for a sloped walk.
“I’ve got my challenges, but the bulk of the people I work with understand my challenges, and they’ll help if I need help,” he said.
Otis was there the week before Christmas to see Karli Kremel use her new sloped sidewalk for the first time.
“She had a smile on her face that says it all,” he said.
The ramp means Kremel no longer has to make a precarious and unsteady walk out her front door. She can stay in her wheelchair — a relief to her mother, who said making the trip had been “very scary” because her daughter loses her balance easily.
“You’re never going to find a person who’s more dedicated than Jerry is,” Cronk said. “He says, ‘These poor people need help,’ and he’s saying it from a wheelchair. People just do a double take.”
Emily Heffter: 425-783-0624 or firstname.lastname@example.org