Debbie hadn’t left her house in almost a year, and she didn’t know what to do. The Tillamook resident required crutches to walk — she’d had several knee surgeries but needed to have the joints replaced — and then she suffered a bad fall that left her completely immobile.
She needed a wheelchair, but her doctor would not write her an order for one until she came in for an exam. Even if she was able to borrow a wheelchair to get to the doctor’s office, she had no ramp to get down the four steps from her house’s front door to the ground.
She felt like a prisoner. It was a feeling that the youth at the Oregon Youth Authority’s Tillamook Youth Correctional Facility and Camp Tillamook Youth Transition Facility could relate to.
“We have a work crew with youth who need community volunteer experience, and I thought it would be a great project for them to help build a ramp for Debbie,” says Brittany McClellan, a group life coordinator at Tillamook YCF. “We have an amazing community here in Tillamook that constantly supports our facilities, and this is a fantastic way for the youth to give back.”
McClellan, who is working on her master’s degree in social work at Portland State University, first met Debbie through an internship at NorthWest Senior and Disability Services (NWSDS) in Tillamook. At her internship, McClellan learned about a program called Ramps and Rails that helps seniors and people with disabilities get repairs or improvements made to their homes that allow them to continue living there rather than moving to a nursing home or other care facility. Debbie was one of NWSDS’s clients.
McClellan suggested to Denessa Martin, the Tillamook facilities’ superintendent at the time, that the youth might be able to help Debbie. She immediately received the go-ahead. Jim Cox, the woodshop teacher at the facilities’ Trask River High School, volunteered his time to go to Debbie’s home and take measurements. Then he worked with youth from Tillamook YCF to build the ramp in their shop.
In early May, a crew of five Camp Tillamook youth installed the ramp at Debbie’s house. They weren’t able to meet Debbie — she was still confined to the inside — but McClellan conveyed the woman’s thanks to the youth.
“She was beyond grateful,” McClellan says. “She had tears in her eyes. She said we’ve literally given her back her life.
“I don’t think it has really settled with the youth exactly what impact they had. They completely changed Debbie’s quality of life. I think projects like this teach them empathy, and give them a chance to give back to others. In the process, it really builds their self-esteem and ability to have compassion for other people.”