Gunn shares the story with members of the Physically Challenged Association of Richmond at the group’s monthly meeting April 5 at St. Joseph’s Villa. The story provokes among the members examples of why, regardless of their wheelchairs and disabilities, they must make themselves more visible in their communities.
Sun pours into the first-floor meeting room at St. Joseph’s where the group members sit around a wooden table, talking and snacking on Hostess Cupcakes, raisins, Fritos and soda. In order to get here, the six have had to arrange transportation with family or with what are called paratransit services such as CARE (Community Access Ride Enterprise) or Van Go. Such rides cost anywhere from $2.50 to $72.
Equal access is an inevitable topic of discussion. The group has been meeting monthly for six years. It’s had nonprofit status for three years and recently set up its Web site, www.physically-challenged.org, in hopes of increasing membership and support. And while members say their efforts have had some success, such as getting area malls to adapt facilities with automatic door openers, they maintain it’s been a struggle to get attention where they need it most, especially in terms of money and transportation.
“The counties don’t want to get off their wallets to fund Link or alternative transportation,” says Mark Brown, the group’s public-relations manager. Brown, 42, suffers from cerebral palsy that affects his balance so much that he relies on a wheelchair, he says. He lives in Chesterfield County. His mother brought him to the meeting.
Unless you have family or friends willing to drive you after 7 p.m. or on weekends and holidays, forget about seeing a movie or going out to dinner during those times, PCA members say — or even getting to a job. In counties like Henrico, public transportation services contracted through CARE for the disabled are offered only weekdays from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.
The county’s Board of Supervisors trimmed service several years ago to cut costs, so it could expand transit services countywide beyond its regular routes, says Lee Priestas, assistant director of public works for Henrico. Now, because of increased costs, the county is considering eliminating three of its existing transit lines. A public hearing is set for April 27. “The county has attempted to address these issues,” Priestas says. Transit service to the government center the night of the meeting will extend beyond 7 p.m.
“It’s a sad situation,” says Greg Alphin, president of the PCA, about the lack of resources for the physically disabled. “We haven’t even scratched the surface of what we’d like to accomplish,” he says. “And no is not a word that’s in my vocabulary.”
The PCA is also a chance for members to socialize. They talk regularly on the phone. Most of them have known one another for decades.
Mary Alphin, 38, is Greg Alphin’s wife, first lady and treasurer of the group, she says. She was born with spina bifida, as was her best friend Jackie Dennis, who sits across the table from her.
“Jackie and I have been through everything together,” Mary Alphin says, “from Shawn Cassidy to Leif Garrett to Rick Springfield.” In September the two saw Rick Springfield at Innsbrook, where Dennis was pulled onstage during “I Get Excited.”
Likewise, Dennis and Gunn have been friends since they were both at Varina High School. The Alphins, Brown and Art Patterson, 43, of Richmond all attended the now-defunct Richmond Cerebral Palsy Center.
“We were so isolated,” Patterson says. Retired now, he worked for 24 years as the elevator operator at the Medical College of Virginia, he says, his speech strained by his condition. “He was always headed up and down,” Alphin teases.
Isolation is what they still fear.
“I’m fighting for a lot of things to get done,” Alphin assures the group. Next month, for instance, he’s arranged for a colleague of his at Philip Morris USA to conduct a seminar on how each member can better facilitate change through activism.
Gunn offers an update on her work with the Red Cross. She and Alphin serve on a “multicultural subcommittee” recently created by the local chapter to study how its programs can be assimilated by more individuals, especially those with special needs.
What is learned could provide a roadmap for other Red Cross chapters and nonprofits, says Heath Rada, executive director for the Greater Richmond Chapter of the American Red Cross. “Michelle represents the spirit of the Red Cross,” Rada lauds, “its heart and soul, with her willingness to give of her time and talent and selflessness.”
Gunn considers herself — and the group — to be more of a guinea pig. “It’s our job to show people what those of us with physical disabilities need and, more importantly, what we can do,” she says.
NASCAR driver and Mechanicsville native Chad Beahr says his racing team, which includes his brother Eddie, has adopted the PCA. “We want to help to work to promote the name and the organization.” Another thing in common with car No. 94 and PCA, he says, is that “we’re also seeking sponsorship.” Beahr has stopped by to meet the group on his way to Williamsburg. Norm Harris, a PCA member who couldn’t attend today’s meeting, is a Beahr fan and lined up the partnership.
Alphin hopes the attention of the local organizations will give the group the exposure it needs to gain support. The group would like to raise enough money — excluding its annual $12 membership fee — to set up a transportation network, buy a laptop computer, expand community outreach and lease or purchase a building of its own for events such as spaghetti dinners, Gunn explains.
It’s nearly 3 p.m. and a purple-and-white CARE van — its riders joke and call it the Barney bus — can be seen through the window of the administration building. The van is for the Alphins who had thought the meeting was supposed to end at 3, not 4. It will take them nearly 15 minutes to get out to the pickup site, board the vehicle and depart. Gunn, Patterson, Dennis and Brown wave the couple goodbye. Their van comes at 4. S
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