ABILITY House — Volunteers with Disabilities Build Home

Circa 2006

Mark Goffeney, a musician who lives in San Diego, places a call to airline reservations asking for the accommodations he needs to comfortably fly the four-and-a-half hours to Honolulu to volunteer building Hawaii’s first ABILITY House. “I was born without arms,” he tells the airline representative, “and I use my feet for things other people use their hands for. If there is an empty seat on the plane, I need my seat reserved next to it so I can eat and reach around without bumping someone else with my knees.”

A travel veteran, Goffeney is used to the wait required while the clearly confused service representative checks with her supervisor. He is also used to her next response, a dozen Muzak songs later: “My supervisor doesn’t know about the seat, but we can provide you a wheelchair to assist you to and from the plane.”

A wheelchair, of course, isn’t much use to a man who can walk—and who also runs, swims, drives a car, effortlessly entertains crowds as he plays guitar with his band Big Toe, and has even been featured in a national TV commercial changing a baby’s diaper with his feet. So please, would someone get this man a wheelchair! And STAT! (And maybe some flight safety instructions in Braille for him to peruse.)

For every person like Mark Goffeney out there hoping others will see that he is an individual and not a category, there are many more people like the airline representative who unconsciously pigeon-hole people with disabilities into the roles that fit their preconceived notions and stereotypes. That’s one reason the ABILITY House program was created.

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Each ABILITY House is built through a partnership between the nonprofits ABILITY Awareness and Habitat for Humanity to provide an accessible home for a family where one or more members have disabilities. Additionally, the program reaches into the local community, inviting people with all ranges of health conditions and disabilities to join the volunteer team in constructing the home. As these diverse volunteers work together on the build site, a transformation frequently occurs in both the volunteers with disabilities and their able-bodied counterparts. The tangible, cooperative act of building a house together shatters myths and stereotypes. As Dr. Patricia Morrissey, commissioner of the Administration on Developmental Disabilities in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, noted in a recent training video for ABILITY Awareness, “Volunteerism is a very constructive way to teach people without disabilities what people with disabilities are capable of doing.”

A grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency supporting volunteerism, along with support from Hewlett Packard and founding sponsor ABILITY Magazine, has allowed the ABILITY House program to expand over the past year, working especially to increase volunteering opportunities for veterans, recuperating service members and college students with disabilities.

The ABILITY House that Goffeney joined in building was constructed in Waimanalo, Hawaii, in partnership with Honolulu Habitat for Humanity, as the new home for the Kamaiopili family, a grandmother with degenerative back disease and her three adopted grandchildren. Construction was timed to coincide with the Pacific Rim Conference hosted annually by the Center on Disability Studies at the University of Hawaii. The home’s universal design features—a no-step entrance, wider doors and hallways and an accessible bathroom—will ensure that the Kamaiopili family and their visitors will continue to have ease of access for decades to come.

Actor Max Gail, a long-time ABILITY House supporter best known for his role as Detective Wojo on the sitcom Barney Miller, came out to volunteer, as did actor/Paralympian John Siciliano and comedian Jeff Charlebois.

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Several service members from the Medical Retention Processing Unit at Schoffield Barracks, the Army unit on the island of Oahu responsible for rehabilitating injured soldiers—many of whom have returned from combat in Iraq—made the 45-minute journey from base to lend their muscle to the project. As a special acknowledgement for their efforts, Miss Universe Natalie Glebova, who also joined in the build as a volunteer, made a visit to the barracks, where she posed for pictures and signed autographs.

Nancie Ozimkowski, a volunteer who is blind, described the Waimanalo ABILITY House build as “the most empowering experience I’ve ever had.” Ironically, she had been married for 20 years to a building contractor and remarked, “In all the years of my marriage I never had the opportunity to hammer a single nail!”

Ozimkowski commented that initially she was a little nervous and didn’t know what to expect. “At first, I couldn’t hit the nail,” she said, “but I lost that feeling of awkwardness within the first hour. At some point it clicked for me, and by the afternoon I was climbing up on sawhorses and scaffolding and pounding nails in. I felt so welcomed, like I really was making a difference. I wasn’t just a token person with a disability—I was part of a community that was working.”

Like Ozimkowski, Goffeney also hammered his share of nails. Additionally, he helped dig a trench, cut out a doorway and generally filled in with any task that needed a helping foot. 

Goffeney shows his carpentry skills; Glebova signs autographs and recruits volunteers at Schoffield Barracks
L to R: Goffeney shows his carpentry skills; Glebova signs autographs and recruits volunteers at Schoffield Barracks

Every ABILITY House draws a diverse group of volunteers: retirees and college students, soldiers and civilians, people with hidden disabilities such as diabetes or mental illness and people with very visible disabilities like Ozimkowski’s and Goffeney’s. Each day the full range of construction jobs is presented to everyone, and each volunteer chooses the job he or she wants to learn.

Unlike the airline service representative who was unable to see that a wheelchair is a not a one-size-fits-all accommodation, experienced construction volunteers on the ABILITY House build site help volunteers with disabilities find creative and resourceful accommodations that allow them to contribute to their maximum potential. For example, when Ozimkowski first began learning to hammer, the construction supervisor offered her a mallet that provided a larger hammering surface. After a short time, she moved to a standard hammer and was successfully nailing away, feeling the nail’s position with her hands and listening for the distinctive ping that echoed when she hit it straight on. “To group everyone together under one set of rules isn’t going to work,” she related. “It wouldn’t work for able-bodied people either. Everyone has an individual level of assistance they need in order to be capable.”

Charlebois, who has quadriplegia from a spinal cord injury, echoed Ozimkowski’s sentiments about the value of his volunteering experience. “It makes me feel positive and respected to be here, putting whatever I have into something for somebody else. When I volunteer, it elevates me as a person.”

Heather Ferguson, an able-bodied volunteer who worked with Ozimkowski, exemplified how working with volunteers who have disabilities is a rewarding opportunity for able-bodied volunteers as well. Ferguson reported, “When I was first asked to help Nancie, I didn’t know what a blind person was going to be able to do. I couldn’t fathom her nailing or anything. But I was astonished at how well she did. She felt where the nail was, and she was driving them in. I was very impressed with her ability, and I think the experience really helped her as well. She felt such a sense of accomplishment. It was like she didn’t even have a disability—she was doing it like any other person. It really changed my idea of what people with disabilities can do.”

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Ferguson commented that she would love to see more opportunities for people with disabilities to join in volunteering. “I’ve never seen any other organization bring anyone with a disability out to help with them, and I think it should happen more. Everybody wants selfworth, everybody wants to help. More groups need to do this. I think of so many different things people with disabilities could be helping with.”

Most of all, the volunteers appreciated getting to know each other. Said Ozimkowski, “The people I worked with, we talked about so many things. It wasn’t just the building that was going on. We were swapping life stories, being human. It wasn’t about disability—it was about being part of a community.”

Roger Crawford, a well-known athlete and motivational speaker who presented at the Pacific Rim conference, confirmed Ozimkowski’s sentiments about the ABILITY House program’s value in breaking down barriers: “To have people working side by side for a common cause is a way we can become educated about a person’s disability. When you look at someone who has a visible disability, you may have preconceived ideas about what they can accomplish. But differences in life don’t mean deficit— they just mean different.”

by Romney Snyder

For more information about the ABILITY House program and other programs of ABILITY Awareness, visit


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