By Randy Tatano
You could say what they’re building is sort of a “Stairway to Heaven,” even though steps aren’t involved.
But what the Men’s Ministry at First United Methodist Church in Brewton does for the community has those in need singing their praises. The group of volunteers builds ramps for people who use wheelchairs, walkers, or just have issues walking up steps. And after 12 years of improving the quality of life for people all over South Alabama, they’re celebrating an incredible milestone.
They’ve built 500 ramps.
What started as a good deed for a church member a dozen years ago has become a signature charity event for First UMC, so much so that there are between 30-40 people on the waiting list right now. Everyone knows who to call if you need a ramp. And after building so many ramps, the volunteer group, which includes many retired men, is a well-oiled machine. In the construction of ramp #500, the 13 volunteers demolished an old walkway and finished the new ramp in just under two hours - in by 9:30 a.m., out by 11:30 a.m.PreviousNext
The speed and efficiency of the group would put a modern assembly line to shame. The design of each ramp is completed before the day of the build, while the measurements taken allow the wood to be pre-cut and loaded into the group’s trailer. When the ramp guys show up with their materials and tools, they can hit the ground running. Every man knows his job so well that very little needs to be said during the build. You can’t even figure out if anyone is in charge since each volunteer is busy with their assigned task. One man lays down a plank, and another is right behind him, screwing it into place. Everything fits perfectly. No time or materials wasted, no breaks. Occasionally someone will grab something cold to drink from the cooler, but no one sits down on the job. It’s two hours of constant motion. Even the process of packing up is a beehive of activity. Five minutes after the ramp is finished, the entire crew is gone. Not a single scrap of wood left behind, no odd screws on the lawn.
There’s no template for building a ramp since no two houses or situations are the same. No two ramps are identical, so there are always challenges in the design and cost before the assembly line goes into action. The volunteers have to consider the location of the entrance, the length of the ramp, and the degree of the incline.
Volunteer Pat Poole feels the group continues to make a big difference in the community. Recipients don’t have to be a member of the church or any church. There’s a common denominator: it’s simply a matter of helping someone who needs it.
“We’re really impacting lives," said Poole. "And we don’t ask about a person’s religion. We consider the genuine need.”
In the case of the latest ramp built, the need was a simple one. Homeowner Naomi Scurlock was forced to use a walker after back surgery a year ago. She’s been unable to navigate steps in and out of her house unless someone could assist her. She said the ramp will significantly change her life.
“I am wonderfully blessed,” Scurlock said. “Now I can get to my car or just walk around the yard.”
For Scurlock, the ramp will mean freedom. That freedom is a little bit of Heaven. A wooden ramp may seem like a simple thing, but it’s life-changing for some people.
Original volunteer Durwood Mantel coordinates the efforts. He first makes sure anyone applying for a ramp truly needs one.
“One woman’s house burned down, and she was in a wheelchair,” Mantel said.
Mantel said the woman was able to find another place to live, but there was no ramp at the mobile home, So, the Men’s Ministry built one for her.
Another woman had access to her home ... sort of.
“She had nothing but an aluminum plank for a ramp,” Mantel said.
He says charity provides a great personal reward.
“It’s really enjoyable to see anyone get something that will really improve their life,” Mantle added.
Mantle, now retired at 73, has no plans to quit.
Volunteer Mike Edwards remembers when the project first began. He said word of mouth spread about the work of the group. Edwards said it seemed like that word of mouth carried a message to a higher power, then back to the volunteers.
“We built one for a church member, then got requests for four or five more,” said Edwards. “We borrowed a smoker and did a fundraiser. We kept getting orders, so we felt this is what we were called to do.”
But Edwards said one current hurdle the group is facing is funding, especially with the skyrocketing cost of lumber and anything related to construction.
“A ramp used to cost $600, and now it’s double or triple that.”
Multiply 500 ramps times that cost, and you don’t really have to do the math to know that continuing this charity project won’t be cheap. But the need will never go away, so more fundraisers will be on the horizon. The group also hopes for additional donations.
So the volunteers will continue building their own personal stairway to Heaven through their excellent work, though seeing the results of their generosity is a reward in itself. First UMC Pastor Bobby Ellisor is extremely proud of the work his members are doing and sums up the charitable act perfectly:
“It feels like this is the Gospel in action. This is the Bible.”
Appropriate, since the volunteers are doing the work of a carpenter.