Each Thursday, they ramp up their ministry
EDITOR'S NOTE: An additional feature about a Florida church that has a wheelchair ramp ministry follows this story.
ELBERTON, Ga. (BP) -- For those with trouble getting a step ahead, this group of men provides a way up.
Richard Eckler experienced it himself. Having undergone eight knee surgeries, including two replacements, he knew what it was like having trouble getting around.
People need the ramps for different reasons. They've grown older. They lost a foot to diabetes. They had a life-altering surgery akin to Eckler's. Whatever the case, a basic set of steps out their front door becomes a danger.
"We'd been building ramps for church members and others for a few years, then the Rotary Club asked if we could take on their requests [for ramps]," Eckler recounted. The number of those needing a ramp grew from there, as individuals and local churches also heard of the ministry.
The ramp building team consists of 16 men, most in their 60s and 70s, with one member in his 80s.
"It's a lot of fun," Eckler said. "We pick at each other while building and have a lot of fellowship and camaraderie."
"Our goal is to start at 8 in the morning and finish in time for lunch at Wendy's," Eckler laughed.
On the serious side, Eckler, whose 32-year teaching career included 27 at Elbert County High School, said, "It amazes me how there are so many people living on the edge" from what he's learned through pre-construction visits at a potential work site. His group can't keep up with the demand; so, while trying to take the requests as they're received, time and need also factor in. For instance, the beneficiary of one ramp had her completion date moved up because of knee and hip replacement surgery.
"Some just can't get in and out of the house. They're held hostage by their own homes," said Eckler, who teaches a Sunday School class at First Baptist. "It breaks your heart that someone who's worked hard all their life and paid for their home and property can't even leave.
"We've had instances where people had to crawl from their house to the car. That should not be."
Ramps are built according to specifications in the American Disability Act and funded largely by donations, like the man who recently gave Eckler a $100 bill when told about the ramp building team. A lady donates an entire dividend check she receives periodically. As one who had received a ramp, she wanted to pay it forward.
Other ramp recipients donate what they can, maybe $10, but it's not expected of them to do so. Lake Russell Building Supply in Elberton provides a sharp enough discount that basically the company provides the materials for every seventh ramp, Eckler said.
The finished product provides its own witness to others, he added.
"Neighbors will come over and ask how much [the ramp] costs. We'll say it was free or from donations. We've been blessed by the Lord and want to bless others. We'll hand out Bibles donated by other churches. Donations come in from churches whose members we've built ramps for."
Eckler's own prior hurdles have helped get the word out. Going through those knee surgeries led to a lot of time with physical therapists. When those same therapists now have a patient needing a ramp, they know whom to suggest. Soon for that patient, the challenge of simply trying to make it through the front door doesn't loom so large.
"The recipients sometimes cry. They can't believe how nice the ramps look, especially if we've replaced an old ramp that had fallen into disrepair," Eckler said. "They're very emotional and appreciative."
Church's wheelchair ramps
evident throughout town
By Keila Diaz/Florida Baptist Witness
JAY, Fla. (BP) -- In the Florida Panhandle town of Jay, a small church has become so embedded in the town's life that one of its members says: "There is no way someone in this town doesn't know Jay First Baptist."
Perhaps its most unique community outreach is the free wheelchair ramp installation that the church started about six years ago.
"Many of the homes here are older and have steps to climb," said Richard Fox, director of missions for the Santa Rosa Baptist Association and former pastor of the church. "This can be especially dangerous for the elderly."
Richard Meadows, First Baptist's outreach ministry director, said the first ramp built by the church was for a member who was coming out of the hospital, "and then we opened it up for anyone in the community who needed a ramp."
At that time the church received a grant from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, which helped pay for materials while the church provided the volunteer labor.
The church no longer receives the grant, with Meadows noting that the wheelchair ramp ministry has been able to continue because members of Jay First Baptist have donated funds to buy materials. He estimates that the cost of materials runs between $300 and $400 for each wheelchair ramp.
The ministry team -- with each member averaging 70 years in age -- builds about 10-15 ramps every year.
"You can't drive around the streets of Jay without seeing our ramps everywhere," Meadows said.
"We try to offer many types of outreach to meet not just the physical but also the spiritual needs," said George Fredericks, pastor of Jay First Baptist which also operates a clothes closet, food pantry and a benevolence committee to help struggling community members pay their water and electric bills.
Most of the wheelchair ramps the church has built are for people who are not members, opening opportunities for the church to share the Gospel.
"They are usually very anxious to hear about the church," Meadows said about members of the community who have had ramps built.
"I believe a church that is community-focused like Jay First [Baptist] will be viewed by all as a caring church," Fox added, "and this will open the door for evangelistic opportunities."