Gwen Schaff, 10, moves slowly yet deliberately behind her walker on the sidewalk in front of her house until she reaches the 8-foot-long plywood bridge that separates the cement path from the street.
She gets the walker over the half-inch lip of the plywood, but clearly struggles as she pushes up the slight incline before the ramp starts downward. She slips backward and gets scared until her dad, Wayne Schaff, jumps in to steady her. Tearfully, Gwen gives up, her cerebral palsy edging out her ability to walk to her parents’ vehicle or back home without someone else’s help.
Wayne ruefully laughs, noting that the new ramp replaces the boards that had provided a makeshift bridge for the past five months.
“OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) came out and said ‘That’s just not going to work,’” he recalled.
The street in front of their house — which is one of four Habitat for Humanity homes here — was torn up five months ago in anticipation of a parking lot being created and the street being repaved. But the work has been slow for a variety of reasons so it’s still just a big dirt hole, with water lines sticking up in the middle of it and curbs on either side.
“It’s a lake when it rains,” Schaff added.
Every day that Gwen leaves for Smith Elementary, her cheerleading club or on some errand with her family, her father or mother have to carry her to the car, which at times can be up to a block away. With winter on the horizon, Wayne Schaff is nervous they’ll still be carrying Gwen to the car and accidentally slip on snow or ice.
“We have been patient,” he said on Monday. “We are very grateful for our home and everything Habitat for Humanity has done, but this is becoming such a hindrance trying to get back and forth.
“We have called and pleaded with them, and they went so far as to ask our neighbors to park far away and said they would try to get us a dedicated spot on the street. That hasn’t happened either. It shouldn’t be this complicated.”
He adds that access is even worse for his neighbor, who has a back problem. Schaff notes that it was only 10 days ago that a fence was installed to keep people from accidentally falling into the parking lot pit; that work was done after he called to complain about safety concerns.
Melony Bruhn, executive director for Habitat for Humanity in Helena, understands his frustration and said they’re trying to help, but these projects take time. They also were hurrying to get the fourth Habitat for Humanity home finished to get the family inside, and ended up putting that work before the paving.
“Although money is tight these days, we do have the money set aside for paving that project,” Bruhn said. “Part of the problem is it’s not just private land owned by Habitat; we were required by the city to engineer, excavate and pave the remaining balance of Oregon Street, which is a city street. We also had to complete the infrastructure.
“So we’ve had to bring in heavy-duty power, had to deal with drainage issues and stormwater and need to put in a retention pond, then ultimately pave that.”
But she’s hopeful that the project may be complete in 30 days. First, though, they have to insulate the water lines, backfill the parking lot and roll it, and then excavate it to the appropriate grade prior to paving.
“We’re doing the best that we can with a volunteer crew and part-time construction supervisor,” Bruhn said, adding that they’re also having problems renting heavy equipment because other construction companies are trying to wrap up their projects, too. “If anyone would like to come with a backhoe and an operator, we’d gladly accept their help.”
As the Schaff family stood outside their home Monday, Mark Leland drove up with another man to look at the property. Leland was only recently hired to complete this project; he’s not sure why it’s taken so long to get the job done but he’s ready to get to work.
“We are doing everything we can to get this done as soon as possible,” Leland said. “I think we have the information to proceed.”
He added that he’s going to fix the ramp so that it no longer creates a barrier for Gwen.
“I can make some alterations to the ramp so it’s more accessible,” he said.
Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076, firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter.com/IR_EveByron