Several times a day, Liz Baldwin opens up the doors of her 1996 Chevy Gladiator van, lowers the power ramp and makes sure her 16-year-old son, Zak, is tucked into his motorized wheelchair before he moves his chair onto the ramp and into the van for the 32-mile round trip to school.
If the ramp is working, it shouldn’t take that long, but the ramp is getting older.
The van is getting older, too. Baldwin bought it used from a family who had bought it used. She’s replaced four fuel pumps in two years. The radiator leaks. The power doors are broken.
The van has served them well, but “I can’t do it anymore,” Baldwin, a single mother, said of her vehicle woes. She has looked for newer, used vehicles, but even those run $38,000 to $40,000.
Last year Baldwin and her son heard about a contest online to win a new wheelchair-accessible vehicle from the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association. They entered late, so they didn’t get very many votes. This year, they entered the contest as soon as they could. Liz has shared the webpage on Facebook two or three times a day and the two have a pretty good chance; as of Thursday, they had more than 1,300 votes.
Keeping Zak active is important to both of them. When he was 7 years old, he was hit by a car while riding his dirt bike near a friend’s house in Reardan, Wash. Liz said he was wearing pads and a helmet, but the vehicle threw him into a barbed-wire fence, causing a spinal cord injury and leaving him a quadriplegic.
“It truly was an accident,” Liz said.
One of the things Zak likes to do is go hunting. He has a special scope connected to a laptop and a gun that uses a sip-and-puff mechanism allowing him to pull the trigger. He bagged his first doe last year and he shot a buck this past season.
“We eat whatever he shoots,” Liz said.
They have a hunting disability placard, but the van isn’t equipped to handle the extra equipment and the recoil, so Zak pulls his chair into a hunting blind.
If they win the new vehicle they won’t have to get out of the van and set up in the blind.
“I’ll be able to shoot out of the van,” Zak said.
The two are saving money to buy him a similarly mechanized fishing pole so Liz can take Zak fishing.
“It gives me another activity to do,” Zak said.
When Zak was first injured, the doctors told her he would probably have to live in the hospital because of the chance of respiratory infection. But in the eight years since his accident, he’s been hospitalized just twice. He attends Reardan High School, where his mother works as a para-professional so she can be near Zak all day.
His service dog, Chrissy, is also with him all day. She helps him maneuver around and pushes the buttons of automatic doors for Zak.
For now, they are making the best of what they have. But they dream of a new vehicle, which would help them both.
“That’s been my whole goal from the get-go,” Liz said. “To give him freedom.”