When volunteers took a food break from building a wheelchair ramp for a Caroline County family, a woman at the diner noticed their lime green shirts and asked about their mission.
As the group explained that SAWs VA aims to change the lives of those trapped in their homes by constructing sturdy handicapped ramps for them, she almost started to cry. Her mother lives in Spotsylvania County and really could use their services.
The same thing happened to Jim Lewis, a team member, when he visited a local business. The man behind the counter saw his shirt, featuring a wheelchair logo, and mentioned someone else who needs a ramp.
“We haven’t even announced ourselves, and we already have four projects lined up,” said Charlie Russell, executive director of the newly formed group that stands for Servants at Work.
Russell, a young-looking 69-year-old, brought SAWs to Virginia after being its executive director in Indiana. He and his wife moved to Spotsylvania in 2016 to be closer to grandchildren, and he hadn’t planned to get into ramp-building during his retirement.
But during services at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Fredericksburg, the Rev. Joe Hensley mentioned that he was looking to expand community ministries. Russell eventually mentioned SAWs, which started 16 years ago in Indiana as a church-sponsored program and has built more than 2,000 ramps.
Hensley liked the sound of it, but Russell still resisted—until he started to do some research and realized the need is even greater in the Fredericksburg area than in Indianapolis.
“It’s largely rural here, and where there’s poverty, there’s poor health,” he said, “and where there’s poor health, there’s disability.”
Russell gathered census data from 2017, which indicates that more than 25,720 people in Fredericksburg and the counties of Caroline, King George, Spotsylvania and Stafford have a disability that impairs their ability to walk.
Of those who are working age, only 28 percent have full-time jobs, “suggesting a significant disabled population that is unemployed and living in poverty,” SAWs states in its organizational profile.
The group designs and builds ramps for those whose income is 60 percent or less of the average median income in the county or city of residence. As part of his effort to lay the groundwork for SAWs, Russell visited local Social Services departments and Rotary clubs to introduce himself and seek referrals, and he also had the ramp design certified locally by a structural engineer, Maurice White of Alex-Com & Associates in Fredericksburg.
Russell also hopes to visit local government leaders to seek assistance with building permits, which the SAWs team will acquire.
For the group’s inaugural project, Russell led seven volunteers through the two-day effort as retired workers took down a makeshift ramp at the home of Glenn and Cassandra Martin in Lake Caroline. They spent 11 hours on Wednesday framing up the addition, which covers an existing stoop and steps, and adding sturdy railings and a graded ramp. It’s much more durable than the flimsy ramp of plywood it replaced, Russell said.
On Thursday, the volunteers, who will become project managers on future endeavors, put the deck and railings in place.
“It’s going to help out a lot,” said Cassandra Martin, who lives in the brick rambler with her husband, Glenn, and brother, Jake Frazier. “It’s a blessing, and I’m grateful.”
The Martins have had more than their share of health problems. Glenn Martin is a former firefighter who hurt his back in the 1980s on a fire call. As he carried a toddler from the second floor of a burning house, the floor caved in. The most important thing, he said, is that he saved the child, but the accident left him with debilitating back injuries.
His wife has a rare syndrome that causes vision problems and confusion. She has trouble negotiating the three steps on the front porch.
His wife’s brother, who sleeps in a hospital bed in the living room, lost his left leg to diabetes and was being fitted for a prosthesis as the volunteers worked on the ramp. His medical problems worsened after his mother, who had lived there, died over the summer from colon cancer and kidney disease.
“My life has been crazy for, like, the last 15 years,” said Glenn Martin, who takes care of his family, along with three neighborhood children.
Charlotte Upton, the 83-year-old grandmother of Frazier and Cassandra Martin, comes regularly from the Charlottesville area to check on the family and take relatives to medical appointments.
“I think it’s a wonderful thing, what these guys are doing,” she said about the volunteers. “It will help them tremendously.”
Russell hopes to partner with local charities interested in the mission that can provide money and manpower. The average cost of a ramp is about $1,500, he said, and volunteers will visit local farmers’ markets and other events to spread word about their projects.
What’s great about the program, said volunteer Debby Fleischer, is that it offers volunteer opportunities across the spectrum. People can give as little as $5 to sign a board with well-wishes for the recipient or pay for an entire ramp. On building days, children can help tap screws into boards before more experienced hands operate power drills.
Those interested in helping, or requesting help, can visit SAWsRamps.org or call 540/646-0896.