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Easthampton woman Maria Arroyo grateful for community help in building ramp

JOSH KUCKENS
UMass Fraternith members built a ramp at the home of Maria Santana, left, and Maria Arroyo, right, of Easthampton.

JOSH KUCKENS UMass Fraternith members built a ramp at the home of Maria Santana, left, and Maria Arroyo, right, of Easthampton. Purchase photo reprints »

EASTHAMPTON — Maria Santana, 70, loves her home of 15 years at 136 Parsons St. But earlier this month, she realized she needed help to make her home more accessible.

Her 87-year-old mother, Maria Arroyo, took a bad fall at her former home in Florida and needed to move to Easthampton to live with Santana to avoid a nursing home.

Arroyo gets around with a walker or wheelchair, so unless they could find a way to build a ramp, she would not be able to get in and out of the house, her daughter said. “I was worried,” Santana recalled. “I really didn’t have the money to do it.”

Santana’s daughter, Ruth Santana, searched the internet, looking for any available assistance in building a ramp. She discovered the website of Stavros, a Pioneer Valley nonprofit that helps people with disabilities lead full lives, and the family asked them for help.

Now, Arroyo can go to the store and other places whenever her heart desires, thanks to the handsome wooden ramp that volunteers built at her new home on Nov. 10.

“I was so happy and excited,” Santana said. “My mom really needs this and she needs to be here so I can take care of her.”

It’s all thanks to a collaboration between a four community groups and programs who strive to help seniors in need.

Stavros handled the project through its Home Sweet Home Program that installs ramps so people can stay in their homes, instead of moving to assisted-living facilities.

Although the organization can install ramps for about half of what most contractors would charge because it gets discounts on materials and labor, homeowners must find ways to cover some of the costs, said Lois Brown, the program’s director.

In this case, the ramp would cost about $1,500 to build. The UMass chapter of fraternity Phi Kappa Phi, in addition to donating time to build the ramp, donated approximately $700 to pay for materials.

Stavros employees helped Santana apply to other funding sources to cover their portion of the construction costs. Highland Valley Elder Services chipped in $500 and the Easthampton Council on Aging’s Emergency Relief Fund provided another $250 to cover the cost of the licensed contractor to oversee the project, Brown said.

All Arroyo and Santana had to pay for was the coffee and pizza for the fraternity volunteers, Brown said.

“It all happens because of cooperation, collaboration and good spirit,” she said.

About 25 members of UMass’s Phi Kappa Phi fraternity spent the day building the ramp under the supervision of builder Nathaniel Bruursema and the grateful gazes of Santana and Arroyo.

“They were very nice boys and good workers,” Arroyo said a few days after the work day. “It’s perfect. I’m happy, very happy.”

Brown said Stavros gave the fraternity an Access Award for assisting people with disabilities to continue living in their homes despite injuries or old age. She said the group builds about two ramps each year. “They do it with such spirit, it’s fun to watch,” she said.

“It flips the standard of what the public thinks of fraternities,” she said. “They’re wonderful, warm young men.”

David Barnstone, who heads the UMass fraternity’s community service work, said the chapter has been building ramps since it formed seven years ago.

“It’s the most rewarding thing for us,” he said, describing watching the recipient walk or wheel up and down the finished ramp at the end of the construction day. “It’s something most of us take for granted.”

They donate their time and materials through Phi Kappa Phi’s national nonprofit, Push America, that seeks to change the way society views people with disabilities, as well as fraternities.

Barnstone said people often develop views of fraternities based on negative press they sometimes get.

“You hear, ‘this many were arrested’ or ‘these people got in a fight,’ ” he said. “But Phi Kappa Phi is always trying to show the community that we’re not like that.”

Push America reimburses the UMass chapter up to $1,000 for materials for the ramp building, and the members donate their time, he said. “Whether we’re building a ramp or fundraising, we try to show people that we’re a good group of guys that wants to help out,” he said.

Brown said Stavros builds about 54 ramps each year. “The number of requests we get far exceeds what we can build,” she said. “There’s an unbelievable need, because no insurance pays for a ramp to be built.”

The nonprofit works hard to help people with disabilities stay in their homes, but trying to fund the requests for ramps is not easy. The nonprofit applies for grants and fundraises, but is always looking for donations of money, supplies and builders’ time to keep building ramps. “That’s why this fraternity has been incredible for us,” Brown said.

Santana said she was amazed watching the volunteers create a ramp in her yard in just a day.

“They were really nice, really good kids,” she said. “They even helped me with the leaves.”

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.

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