Building a ramp to freedom

When Claude Wirkus left the hospital July 24, he realized he had a problem – once he was home, he couldn't leave. Having his second leg amputated recently, Wirkus realized his home was not wheelchair accessible.

Claude Wirkus is pushed by Hunter Chumbley down the ramp for the first time.

When Claude Wirkus left the hospital July 24, he realized he had a problem – once he was home, he couldn’t leave. Having his second leg amputated recently, Wirkus realized his home was not wheelchair accessible. Fortunately for him, the East Pierce Firefighters Benevolent Fund and Lowe’s Home Improvement was able to help.

The East Pierce Firefighters Benevolence Fund is a non-profit organization, and is operated separately from East Pierce Fire and Rescue. Hunter Chumbley, the chair of the Benevolent fund, received an email on July 16 from a MultiCare facility that Wirkus needed a ramp built to enter and leave his home.

Chumbley said that the benevolent fund evaluatea both the financial cost and the individual community need before it begins a project. Money used by the fund is raised through charity events and donations from firefighters to “benefit the citizens when they are in need,” he said.

For this project, however, Lowe’s donated all the materials needed to make the ramp, minimizing the cost to the fund. Derek Oliver, the store manager of Lowe’s in Bonney Lake, said they do a Lowe’s Hero Project once a year. This year, they decided to “do something a little more hands-on for a member of our community,” he said.

The ramp took the firefighters, who were off-duty and received no compensation, and Lowe’s volunteers two days to build. “I could never afford to do this,” Wirkus said as the ramp was being built. “I didn’t even have access to leave my house to go to medical appointments.”

Wirkus said because he didn’t have a ramp, cabulences (a cab-ambulance hybrid for transporting medical patients) would not come pick him up.

Even though Wirkus used to race hydroplanes and drag cars, he said he was never injured while racing. He lost his first leg after he was hit by a car three years ago in Auburn, and lost the other due to an infection earlier this year.

“These people gave me a ticket to freedom,” Wirkus said, acknowledging that the ramp meant he can continue to live independently and not in an assisted living facility.

When the ramp was finished, Chumbley wheeled Wirkus down the ramp across a makeshift ribbon of caution tape, high-fiving all the way.”That was the best finish line crossing ever,” he said, thanking all of the volunteers.

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