Ypsilanti Township resident Tyrone Bridges says it "broke my heart and tore me up" when he learned that one of his former Ypsilanti High School classmates, who uses a wheelchair, had to crawl out the front door of her Superior Township home.
Bridges is now heading up the Dana and Leonard Brown Family Assistance Project to help that classmate and her husband update their home to accommodate their disabilities. The project is organized through Bridges' nonprofit, The Behavior Workshop, a youth development and community improvement organization with a focus on assisting at-risk youth and their families.
Dana Brown says her husband Leonard was in a severe car accident in December that shattered his ankle and foot. The injury necessitated eight surgeries to put plates and screws in his leg for a total of several weeks in the hospital, and then rehabilitation in a nursing home for several more weeks.
While Leonard Brown was still in the nursing home, a pre-existing medical condition Dana Brown had been struggling with worsened, leading to an infection in her foot.
"They told me to save my life, they had to cut it off," she says.Dana Brown.
Both husband and wife are now wheelchair users, though Leonard Brown may be able to walk with some assistance after more physical therapy, his wife says. While they were both in and out of treatment facilities, their house fell into disrepair as well.
"I can honestly say it's been overwhelming," Dana Brown says. "There are lots of things we can't do that we used to do. Cooking and tidying up the house is a challenge. So are lots of simple things we used to do, like taking out the trash."
Bridges grew up as a neighbor to Dana Brown, and they both went to high school in Ypsi together, staying in touch through social media in adulthood. Knowing that Bridges is a contractor who does home improvement projects, Brown asked him about building a ramp for her home.
Bridges put out a call on his Facebook page asking that Ypsilanti High School alumni pitch in on a project to not only build a ramp but to fix about two dozen other issues with the house. Those ranged from fixing an electrical outlet to patching a hole in a wall to fixing the home's heating and cooling system.
Keith Gipfert, another former classmate of Brown and Bridges, owns his own construction firm and was the first to respond. He volunteered his labor to build the ramp if the proper permits were obtained and if a GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign for the project could raise enough money to pay for materials.
"I try to help where I can when I can," Gipfert says. "We've got the permits already, and I did all the plans for [the ramp]. Now we're lining up material and workers." Keith Gipfert.
More volunteers soon came on board, including Ademola Osofisan of Scope Design and Build, drywall professional Tony Roberson, electrical contractor Lewis Frye, cleaning crew supervisor Carla Williams, and Carleesha Booker of Luxury Touch Cleaning Service. Frank James, a local entrepreneur who owns the Good Eats food truck, has also pledged to provide food for the volunteers during the project.
Bridges says he hopes to complete the project by the first week of August, if not sooner, but it will depend on how much the crowdfunding campaign raises and what materials are donated by then. The campaign has currently raised $615. He plans to put the Browns up in a hotel for a day or two while the crew repairs and cleans the Browns' home.
Bridges hopes not only to help out one family but to draw awareness to the fact that many people are struggling and may be "falling through the cracks" while the nation's attention is focused on the COVID-19 pandemic.
"When I saw Dana in a wheelchair, the first thing I thought of was my mom, and how my mom ended up in a nursing home," he says. "Resources are slim to none for low-income people in a crisis, on top of COVID-19. I just couldn't stand to see my friends struggling that hard."
Dana Brown agrees that help has been hard to come by. She and her husband are not old enough to access resources that target seniors, and they didn't qualify for help from Habitat for Humanity of Huron Valley.
"We haven't been able to find services to help people in our age group with some type of disability," she says. "I called 211, and some of those numbers they gave me, when I called those places, they say, 'We don't do that type of thing.' It's been a struggle."
Bridges says Dana Brown is "an excellent person" who is loved by many people.
"I knew if I made a big enough fuss, people would listen," Bridges says. "I wanted to bring attention to the people in the Washtenaw County area and the state of Michigan that people like this can fall through the cracks, because they don't have people to reach out and advocate for their wellbeing."
Bridges calls the couple's needs an "all hands on deck" emergency during a time when many people are already financially distressed.
"They really need wraparound love and services for them," he says. "We need to rally around a family that could have been left to fend for themselves during a time like this. This is what God would love, people coming together and serving people who can't help themselves."
Monetary donations may be made to the GoFundMe campaign here. Anyone who would like to donate labor or materials may contact Bridges at firstname.lastname@example.org or (734) 444-4841.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at email@example.com.All photos by Doug Coombe.