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Kiwanis, Chassell Fire Department builds wheelchair ramp

(Photo provided by Jim Slater) Members of the Kiwanis Club of the Copper Country and the Chassell Fire Department help install a wheelchair ramp at the home of Maria Velat, a 10th-grader at Houghton High School.

PORTAGE TOWNSHIP — When Maria Velat returns home, the ride up will be a little easier. 

Members of the Kiwanis Club of the Copper Country and the Chassell Fire Department met up Saturday morning to build a wheelchair ramp for Maria, a 10th-grade student at Houghton High School.

Five weeks ago, Maria suddenly came down with transverse myelitis, a neurological disorder where a portion of the spinal cord becomes inflamed, causing paralysis. 

With no wheelchair ramp at the house, Maria’s family could not get her in the house without carrying her. John Velat, Maria’s father, learned of the program from one of his co-workers. He contacted the Keweenaw Community Foundation, which put him in contact with Kiwanis. 

“It’s tremendous … because this happened so suddenly, there wasn’t really a good way for us to build it ourselves with winter coming,” he said. “We were just really lucky we happened across Kiwanis.”

The build took a little under two hours, said Jim Slater, president-elect of Kiwanis Club of the Copper Country. Five Kiwanis members came out, joined by five members of the Chassell Fire Department, of which John is a member. 

Kiwanis members visited the site first to figure out what they need. Tuesday morning, they pre-built sections for the 50-foot ramp. 

“To build a 50-foot ramp in two hours is a good day,” Slater said. “Of course the cold helped. Nobody wanted to stand around too much.”

Kiwanis has been building the ramps for about 25 years. But they had been on the verge of retiring, as members aged and no younger ones came in to replace them, Slater said. Members of the fire department seemed interested in doing more, he said.

“I just turned 71 this week, and there have been builds where I was the young guy on the staff,” he said. “We’d about given up. We’ve been trying to find people to partner with us to do it, and we may have somebody now.”

They are looking to do about four or five a year, Slater said. 

John is with Maria in Ann Arbor, where she is scheduled to be discharged on Nov. 19. Doctors do not know if she will regain use of her legs, though she may recover fully, John said. 

“They don’t know exactly what the outcome will be, or how to get the best outcome, except for physical therapy and lots of luck,” he said. 

Maria is thrilled with the ramp, as well as all the other help the community has stepped up to provide, John said. 

“Times like this, we really find out how strong our community is and how they help in times of need,” he said.

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