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Program makes homes more accessible

Volunteers from Access North and the Arrowhead Chapter of the Association of Minnesota Building Officials partnered to build a ramp at the home of Joel and Heather Stillwell so their son Dane has better access to the home's backyard and garage. Dane was born 16 weeks premature and has several disabilities limiting his mobility. (News-Chronicle photo by Jamey Malcomb)

Joel and Heather Stillwell's backyard was a mess last week with around 20 people working around their Two Harbors home. Saws screamed and drills squealed as they cut two-by-fours and secured railings.

A nice breeze blew in off Lake Superior and the bright sunshine revealed sawdust floating gently in the air. The scene had all the ingredients of a pretty major home improvement project, right down to the boxes of donuts for workers to snack on as they worked.

This was no ordinary construction project, however. The project was a collaboration of the Arrowhead Chapter of the Association of Minnesota Building Officials (ACAMBO) and Access North, a group that assists people with disabilities living independently. Each year the groups partner to build a ramp for one northeastern Minnesota home to help improve the accessibility of the homes of people with disabilities.

On June 8, the ACAMBO and Access North were working to build a ramp for Joel and Heather's 15-year-old son Dane. Dane was born premature at 24 weeks and weighed 1 pound, 7 ounces at the time. Heather said when her son was born she could hold him in the palm of her hand. After a long stay in the neonatal intensive care unit, the Stillwells brought him home, but Dane, now 15, still spends time in a wheelchair and at other times uses a walker to get around the house.

"When he was born they gave him a 10 percent chance of surviving, but here he is," Heather said. "As he gets older and he's growing taller, he get's more unstable with his walking. When he was littler it was easier to support his walking, but as he gets older it's tougher."

Several years ago, Access North built a ramp in the front of the Stillwells' house to help Dane get to the school bus more independently, but school is really the only time the family uses the front door to the house. The Stillwells' home has stairs off the back of their home, the way they leave if they drive anywhere and where they gather outside with family and friends. When Dane was younger, Joel said they could just "manhandle" Dane to get him into the backyard, but at 15 that's no longer possible.

"When he was little, you could just pick him up and when he was a little older you could support him, but now it's just not safe for anyone," Heather said.

Access North ramps are almost entirely prefabricated before they bring them out to the home to install them. They're designed to be temporary or permanent, require no footings and as a result they require just a single day to install. What's more, Access North works with people all around the region and installs 65 to 70 ramps each year, all of which meet local building codes and standards.

"Being that we're involved in the building code, it's a good thing to show that we actually get out there and do work ourselves, a lot of us have a background in construction," said Blake Nelson, president of the ACAMBO and Duluth building inspector. "Plus, it's just a good break up of sitting inside."

For the Stillwells, however, it means that Dane can make his way outside without his parents' help and gives him an independence he wouldn't otherwise have. It also provides them with the comfort that the ramp is safe for their son and he can join in family picnics or other family gatherings in the backyard.

"It's just really great that this program is available," Heather said. "When they first came and talked to us, they do this so much that they just know what needs to be done and so it's not starting the wheel from the beginning. They come in and they tell you how it works and they make it just such an easy process, it's wonderful."

Jamey Malcomb

Jamey Malcomb has been a reporter for the Pine Journal since October 2018. He previously worked as a reporter for the Lake County News-Chronicle from 2015-2018. Malcomb is a native of North Carolina and holds a bachelor's degree in English and history from the George Washington University and a master's degree in education from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Malcomb moved to Minnesota in July 2012 and worked as a sports clerk and news assistant at the Duluth News Tribune. 

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