Palmetto couple gets birthday gift - a wheelchair ramp

vmannix@bradenton.comApril 24, 2013 

PALMETTO -- William Conaway's 75th birthday is Thursday and, in a lovely coincidence, he's going to receive something Saturday that's a truly welcome gift, belated or not.

A new wheelchair ramp for his mobile home.

No, it's not as sexy as a Caribbean cruise, new Cadillac or golf clubs, but the diabetic septuagenarian doesn't need those.

"It's going to make things a lot better, be easier for him to get around," said Sharon Conaway, his wife for 48 years. "He can hardly wait to see what they're going to do."

Neither can Michael Fluker, executive director for the Suncoast Center for Independent Living Inc.

Ditto for Myron Chestnut and the Tropicana and PepsiCo/Enable volunteers.

They're teaming up for Saturday's "Ramp N Go" wheelchair ramp-building effort to help the Conaways.

It's a regular communitywide agency activity -- provided it can find funding partners.

"This is a growing problem -- people with disabilities who have difficulty getting in and out of their homes," Fluker said. "I can't tell you the number of times we are contacted by people literally confined to their homes because they lack a ramp. Some are forced to rely on family members and friends to carry them in and out of their own homes.

"One person told us the last time he tried to leave his home by himself he fell and was on the ground for hours until a neighbor saw him and called for help."

Sounds like Conaway's predicament.

A ramp in place is too narrow for his wheelchair and too steep for him to walk and keep his balance.

"My legs are too weak, so I've fallen a number of times," he said.

His wife will vouch for it.

"I'm usually behind him, but he's dropped right in front of me and we had to call 911 because I can't pick him up," Sharon Conaway said.

"I'm really glad they're doing this."

So is Chestnut, a Tropicana employee for 18 years.

William Conaway worked there 31 years -- forklift operator, stacker, etc. -- before retiring in 2001.

"That's real nice of them to do this, a real surprise," Conaway said.

Turns out Tropicana was committed to the project before it knew its recipient.

"This makes it all the better," said Chestnut, a department manager in manufacturing.

It hits him where he lives.

Chestnut is a caregiver for a wheelchair-bound aunt in his home, which has a wheelchair ramp.

"So I know the benefit of having one," he said.

The Conaways can appreciate that.

If they can navigate the present ramp to reach his motorized wheelchair parked outside, they go to Popi's Too and Hungry Howie's. Or catch the bus to Walmart. Or the Manatee County Handy Bus for doctor's visits.

Sharon Conaway's sister, Deborah Trudell, has also been a godsend since neither of them drives.

"I don't know what we'd do without her," Conaway said.

The new wheelchair ramp will be a fitting birthday present, indeed.

"It's going to be a definite upgrade," William Conaway said.

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix.

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