Woman's story inspires couple to build new home

Posted: Tuesday, November 19, 2002

In March, Soldotna's Cindy Wood told the Kenai Peninsula a story about challenges.

Cindy, a wheelchair-bound 22-year-old, was looking for a place to live, with little success. Time and again, she found that most affordable housing on the peninsula -- most housing in general, for that matter -- simply couldn't accommodate her wheelchair. She couldn't maneuver the stairs to the building, or get through the front door, or fit into the bathrooms.

As she struggled to find a place to live, she also kept busy working with area organizations to increase the awareness of disabilities throughout the peninsula and state. She worked with People First, an organization to support independence for people with disabilities. She traveled to Juneau to lobby the Governor's Council for better accommodations and awareness of people with disabilities.

And she told her story locally, hoping to inspire a change in her own community.

"I'm trying to make people more aware. I'm not the only person on the peninsula who is disabled," Cindy told the Clarion in March. "Down the road, people in my situation are going to need the same help I need."

Halfway across the Pacific, two part-time peninsula residents were listening.

Rich and Marcia King spent the winters in Hawaii, where Rich is a carpenter. In the summers, the couple lives in Soldotna, where Marcia was born and Rich works as a commercial fisher. Rich also has helped build several medical facilities on the peninsula.

In March, Marcia read Cindy's story on the Internet and was inspired to help.

"I remember her saying she wanted to live independently," Marcia said Friday. "I thought, 'Well, maybe we can help this happen.'"

The couple owns land off Gaswell Road just outside Soldotna. They decided they would use the land to build a fully accessible house to rent out to families in need.

Though the two have built several houses together in the past, they had never built an accessible home, Marcia said.

To start, Rich contacted the Independent Living Center in Soldotna and met Jim Brady. A wheelchair user and advocate for people with disabilities, Jim worked with the Kings throughout the project, providing feedback and ideas.

The Independent Living Center also loaned the Kings a wheelchair to test their designs.

"All our decisions, we tried to make from the wheelchair," Marcia said. "It was a challenge."

The couple didn't employ designers or architects, Rich said. They simply talked to people as they went, discussing different design modifications with plumbers, electricians and carpenters.

They used the wheelchair to identify problems and talked to mobility-impaired people about the daily challenges they face.

The three-bedroom house is built entirely on one level. There are no inclines, ramps or steps at any of the entrances. The front walkway has radiant heating to melt any snow or ice that could block the entrance. Doorways and halls are larger than the minimum code, providing plenty of room for wheelchair maneuvering. The garage is finished and heated, providing a warm and direct path to the kitchen.

The kitchen itself is a design marvel. A side-by-side refrigerator and freezer makes chilled storage space reachable from a chair. A low side-opening oven means no reaching over a hot oven door to reach baked items.

Below-counter storage space is made up of drawers, not cabinets, so doors don't get in the way of movement.

The stove and sink both have cut-out, roll-under space to provide access, as does part of the 32-inch-high counter.

"Cooking, being in the kitchen is a simple pleasure, one anyone deserves to enjoy," Rich said. "To have to do it with all these obstacles, oh my gosh."

Then there are the bathrooms.

"In residences, the worst is the bathroom. They're all closet size, and that just doesn't work with a wheelchair user," Jim said. "Even in my house, I can't get into the bathroom with my chair. I still have work to do."

That won't be a problem in the house the Kings built. The bathrooms are spacious, built with wheelchair users in mind. They have roll-under sinks and are fully equipped with hand rails.

The primary bathroom has a roll-in shower, complete with an offset handle (to turn water on and off from outside the shower) and an adjustable shower head.

The master bathroom has a bathtub-shower with a chair-level seat to allow people to slide from a wheelchair onto the seat, then into the tub.

Even the floors and walls throughout the house are built with special needs in mind. The kitchen and living area are covered with industrial grade, nonskid vinyl and the bedrooms are floored with commercial grade carpet, providing a soft surface, but easy rolling.

The bottom half of the walls in the living area are covered in soft pine paneling.

"If you crash into the soft pine, it might dent it, but it will look like it should be there," Rich said. "There's nothing you can do to this house you can't fix, so the people who live here don't have to live on pins and needles."

Though the Kings returned to Hawaii this week, the house is finished for the most part, and the couple plans to work with the Independent Living Center to find an individual or family in need of the accommodations to rent the house.

"The agency people are the right people to pick the people who live in this house, more than I am," Rich said. "They're the ones who know whose life this house can change."

Though the Kings didn't specify a rental price, Jim estimated it would cost between $1,200 and $1,300 a month. "That seems perfectly reasonable for a house like that," he said.

That amount may be a little more than what most individuals or families with disabilities think they can afford, but Jim said it can work.

He explained that the typical person with disabilities receives about $907 a month for income. Up to 30 percent of that goes to housing, then the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation pays the remainder of rental expenses. For a three-bedroom house, the AHFC's limit on total rent is about $1,006, though that number is expected to increase in January.

The Kings' house would not meet that limit, but, Jim said, exceptions can be made. Individuals can file for exceptions with the AHFC if they are in need of the accommodations the house provides and cannot find an alternative.

And not many alternatives exist on the peninsula.

"There is definitely a need for accessible housing," Jim said, echoing Cindy's missive.

Cindy, as it turns out, did find a place of her own and won't be moving into one of the Kings' houses anytime soon.

Nonetheless, she remains the inspiration for the Kings' new mission.

And though the Kings know a handful of houses won't meet the entire need on the peninsula, they also believe that each home they build can make a difference to at least one person.

"I hope this is a dream come true for someone," Rich said.

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