ABILITY Builds — New Accessible Homes

Circa 2009

Too many people with disabilities assume their options are limited before they’ve fully explored them. Often these perceived boundaries don’t stem from actual physical barriers, but from psychological ones that we impose upon ourselves. Occasionally they are reinforced by well-meaning friends and loved ones who think they are being helpful when they say: “Let me do that for you.”

Recently, the ABILITY Build project chipped away at some of these barriers by putting people with disabilities to work on a construction site in Lynwood, CA. I was fortunate enough to be a part of the crew, which was made up of people both with and without physical disabilities. Each of us was motivated by the common goal of building homes.

More specifically, it was the dreams of the Martinez family and their soon-to-be neighbors, the Briggs and Osbornes,who inspired us that warm, sunny Friday. We were also driven by camaraderie, resilience and pride in a hard day’s work. I had never been part of a collaborative construction project before and, as someone with cerebral palsy, had never expected to end an afternoon covered in drywall dust and with my arm sore from pounding nails. I was also surprised to find that this was an experience to which I would eagerly return, heartened that a door, which I had previously imagined to be closed to a skinny kid on crutches, swung wide open.

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Now three low-income families are enjoying shelter. One of them, the Martinezes, have a 12-year-old son named Cesar, who has severe cerebral palsy and a Build a house? No sweat! The author confers with Billy, a Habitat for Humanity crew leader cognitive disability. In their previous living situation, the Martinezes were not allowed to bring Cesar’s wheelchair into the home because the landlord was concerned it would damage the floors. Now not only will Cesar be able to have his wheelchair nearby, but for the first time he will have his own bedroom. The homes come thanks, in part, to Habitat for Humanity of Greater Los Angeles. They represent not only an expansion of space, but also of freedom.

Those of us building the homes also felt ourselves grow. The truth is, I personally don’t know many people with disabilities in my daily life. We don’t travel in packs and we don’t speak a special language, so my encounters with my wheelchair-using brethren are often coincidental, sometimes capped by a passing nod of acknowledgement and solidarity. On this construction site, however, I met a rock guitarist born without arms who used his feet to manipulate a power drill. I met an actor who, on a prosthetic leg, dashed from one job to the next. I met a woman who was a paraplegic, and who rolled around the site in a wheelchair as if she were born to be there.

As a part of the ABILITY Build, I may not have learned much about construction—it’s fairly easy to figure out the relationship between a hammer and a nail—although I did learn something about myself, something that is difficult to articulate, but deeply felt: I saw with new eyes that my self-imposed limitations were unfounded. Oh yeah, I also helped build a house.

by David Radcliff

Briana Walker and her new sole mate, Mark Goffeney, get the job done.

“You complete me.” That memorable line from the 1996 movie Jerry Maguire, now holds special ‘ ‘meaning for me.

A former Habitat for Humanity volunteer, I hadn’t had the opportunity to help with a build since becoming a paraplegic nearly seven years ago, and I was excited for the chance to participate again.

I arrived at the ABILITY Build site with eagerness, protective goggles and sunscreen. After our safety orientation for the build, which was hosted, in part, by Habitat for Humanity of Greater Los Angeles, each volunteer was assigned to a crew leader. I got Bethy Davis, a cute, tall, slender, blond girl who could make any tool belt look good. She then chose Mark Goffeney as the third member of our crew. Looking over at him, I noticed right away that he didn’t have arms.

“Aren’t we a pair?” I thought to myself. Right away I knew this was going to be quite the experience: a girl who can’t use her legs, and a guy who has no arms. Unbeknownst to me, however, I was being sized up by Mark at that exact same moment. He was quick to observe that I was a female in a wheelchair. Little did we know then that we would get an immense amount of work accomplished and change a few perspectives along the way.

I was put in charge of measuring and cutting the wood. Bethy provided me the measurements, and I used a chop saw to cut the long 2X4’s down to size. Mark saw me struggling to hold down the planks, and quickly jumped Briana and her sole mate, Mark, get the job done in to help. “I will pick up the other end and level it for you,” he said. I kept my eye on the wood as I fed it through the saw, all the while wondering how Mark was picking up the slack behind me. After lining up the next 2X4 on the table, I glanced over my shoulder and saw him lift the wood with his foot.

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“Of course that’s how he does it,” I thought to myself. It was at that moment that Team Mark, Bethy and BrianaMB2 was in full effect.

Within the first hour, Mark and I were “in the zone” and had gotten a good handle on our tasks. Using one foot, he pulled out the tape measure and, with the other foot, used a pencil to mark the necessary length needed. As he passed the boards to me, I used the chop saw to cut them to his precise measurements. We took great pride in our work, and were pleased when we received the thumbs up from Bethy for our impeccable accuracy.

At one point, I turned to my teammate and said: “Mark, you complete me.” We both burst out laughing, and yet it was true. We were a force to be reckoned with. Neither of us questioned the other’s ability, and we continued to encourage one another with each new task.

After all the sawing was finished, we moved on to drilling. I watched as Mark picked up the drill with one foot and the wood with the other. He lined up the drill with the wood and pulled the trigger with his big toe. He controlled the drill with ease and precision. As he finished each piece, he picked up the wood with his foot and placed it on my lap. I then drilled the screws into the holes he had created. We worked diligently through the morning, until we heard the announcement that lunch was being served, and then went together to wash my hands and his feet.

Our next assignment was to cut dry wall. This took us a little longer to figure out. Because our work area was on a slight slope, I was rolling all over the place—not something I wanted to do with a sharp blade in my hand! We took precautions by re-situating our work area so it would be safer.

After I made a few cuts to score the dry wall, Mark stepped on the seam with his bare foot to snap it along the cut that I had made. As the workday neared its end, Mark was determined to cut a measured piece of dry wall from start to finish. I watched him take the blade between his toes and cut along the measured line. After a few strokes, he once again used his barefoot to break the piece off. Being a former cheerleader, I broke out into a cheer for Mark. We definitely had team spirit! Mark and I spent the whole day together, and learned a lot about each other. One thing that was apparent from the beginning is that we share a similar sense of humor, which helped fill the day with laughter.

With all the preparation and support I received along the way, I knew I was capable of success. Mark knew he was capable of it, as well. In moments when we would not have been so successful as individuals, working together became our strength. Combining our talents gave us the means to “complete each other” and our jobs.

by Briana Walker


For more on the ABILITY Build program


To learn more on Mark Goffeney and his band “Big Toe”




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