A lift for Nicholas

A lift for Nicholas - Tri-City News

For nine days, about 150 volunteers worked on the renovation of the Smoroden home, and businesses from the Tri-Cities and beyond, even as far away as Ottawa, donated materials. What would motivate so many to work so hard for so long — for free? The answer comes in the form of a 12-year-old boy named Nicholas, and in the supremely satisfying feeling of helping someone, just for the good of it…

Vince Augustin drove all night from Salmon Arm to Port Coquitlam to do a week-long renovation project — for free — for a family he has never met. After five hours of sleep, he arrived at the Fraser Avenue job site at 7:30 Wednesday morning and was greeted with utter chaos.

Steaming blacktop was being poured on the driveway.

A cube van pulled up filled with roles of sod for the front and back yards, and started unloading it on the neighbour’s driveway.

Inside, Rakesh Sharma lined up bamboo planks for the new hallway floor, doing his best to ignore the dozens of people squirming over and around him on their way to the kitchen, living room, bedrooms, deck and bathroom.

Windows were being installed. Drywall was being sanded. A bathtub was being fitted and a mason was finishing off the fireplace.

Augustin was ready, tools in hand, but nobody else was.

If it were any other job, he would have turned around and left. Instead, he went through the house helping the framers, painters and carpenters, making himself useful until it was time for cabinetry and crown moulding.

“It’s not like any job site I’ve ever been on,” Augustin said. “When it’s not for yourself, everybody acts different.”

For Nick to be Nick

A month before Kathy Smoroden, her husband Steve, and their three children left town on Sept. 25, she sat in the living room and struggled to express her gratitude for a gift she’d neither imagined nor dared to hope for.

She sat in a chipped white rocking chair, her back to the brass fireplace flanked by dark wood panelling. There were boxes, piles of clothes and stacks of books scattered around. There had been a small fire in the bathroom recently, so everything needed to be packed up and professionally cleaned. There hadn’t been time to put it all away.

“We can’t even put into words how grateful we are,” Kathy said. “To have people we don’t even know come alongside to help us is overwhelming.”

And then Nicholas scooted out from the hallway, deftly maneuvering on his hands and pulling his lower body around the obstacle course. He grinned widely, thrilled at the prospect of telling a new visitor the dramatic tale. He hoisted himself onto the couch with quick, crab-like movements, the story spilling out in an excited jumble.

Twelve-year-old Nicholas Smoroden has spina bifida and depends on a wheelchair but the home’s thick carpeting and narrow hallway make it impossible to wheel around. He depends on his hands instead and, quite often, his mom. Because of the home’s cathedral entrance, Kathy usually carries him in and out of the house but a chronic kidney condition has worsened and made the task exceedingly difficult.

When Nicholas comes home from school with his friends, he and his mom wait at the door until they’ve passed before she lifts him out of the chair and carries him upstairs.

“You could just see the look on Nick’s face, like he was a baby and all the other kids were growing up,” Kathy said. “We tried to do as much as we could to preserve that dignity but it got harder and harder as time went on.”

Thus came a simple dream: Having a lift in the home would be “amazing, for Nick to be able to be Nick.”

Lose the orange carpet

Kathy Smoroden knew only bits and pieces.

She knew her family had been chosen by the Cornerstone Home Team, an outreach program of the Cornerstone Seventh Day Adventist Church in Coquitlam, for a home renovation.

She knew a little about the Home Team’s first project for the Penner family last year. That reno had started with plans for a new roof and gutters, maybe a new paint job, but as word spread, volunteers and donations poured in and, a week later, the Penner home had been completely redone, inside and out.

But she didn’t know what would happen to the house her family has called home for the past 20 years.

In her grandest dreams Kathy wished only for a stairway lift for Nicholas, and a more accessible bathroom so he could have some privacy. If painting was in order, she was relieved that colour choices wouldn’t be up to her. Only after some prodding did she admit that, if possible, losing the master bedroom’s burnt orange carpet might be nice.

It’s hard to stop them

“You don’t have to take out the studs,” renovation co-ordinator Russ McCann said gently to the three men bashing away at what was left of the wall that until the day before separated the kitchen from the living room. “There’s going to be a wall there eventually.”

He turned around, shaking his head but smiling. “Once they get going, it’s hard to stop them.”

It was Friday morning, Day 2 of the Smoroden renovation, and the entire top floor had already been gutted.

Floors were down to bare plywood and what used to be a bathroom and kitchen had become one large space divided only by plumbing fixtures jutting awkwardly out of the floor.

A white bathtub stood on end, sawdust pooling near the drain. Windows were reduced to holes in the wall. Door frames were ripped off and somebody had scrawled “Widen to 3.0 [feet]” in pencil beside each doorway. Piles of drywall were stacked in the living room.

Painter Clive Bollerup, four years into his retirement, was back in his white coveralls and back at work, prepping the walls in the front stairway.

In the back yard, Landon Par and Allen Upton hacked through a tangle of blackberry bushes and knocked down a dilapidated shed.

And in between the master bedroom and Nicholas’s room, a framer named Renny was building the bones of what would become an elevator shaft.

Suddenly, a large crash came thundering up from the hole between the main floor and the basement. “Whoops!” he said giddily, to nobody in particular. “There goes a $300 level!”

God asked us to be here

Six days later it was Day 6 of the reno, and the house had already undergone a stunning transformation.

(Seventh Day Adventists abide by a Saturday Sabbath, putting down their tools at sun-down on Friday and not working again until Saturday evening. As one volunteer put it, God had smiled on the Smoroden project and they weren’t going to cross Him, no matter how much work needed to be done.)

A wide, curved concrete walkway linked the new driveway to a set of double front doors. They’d been painted dark red, complementing the new stone- and grey-coloured Tudor exterior. Flooring was being installed and painters were giving the ceilings a coat.

In the expanded main bathroom, Mike Parkerson tiled around the new bathtub, an unexpected gift from the owner of Ottawa-based Sage Solutions, a company that makes accessible bathroom products. He’d been vacationing in B.C. when he heard McCann discussing the project on the radio and donated the wide tub, grab bars and other fixtures.

Perched on the edge of the elevator shaft, Alan Bodnaruk of Western Elevator went through a detailed inspection of the lift before he would sign his name to it.

Being in the business of assisting people with disabilities the company often receives requests for freebies; at $20,000 for the equipment and installation, it’s not something Western often does.

But something about the Smorodens persuaded them. Western Elevator had the manufacturer substantially cut the price, and the installation was free.

“We have a six-month backlog but we made this our top priority,” Bodnaruk said. “We took guys off other jobs and just squeezed it in because it’s a worthwhile project.”

Outside on the newly enlarged deck, Greg Kotlowski fed boards into a table saw and finished trimming windows at the back of the house. He and his friend Frebrick Field have been coming in every day from Surrey to help out.

“I’m here because God asked us to be here,” he shrugged, saying he felt blessed to be able to share his good fortune — his health, his construction skills — with a family in need.

“I’ve been taking all my life, and it’s nice to give back,” Kotlowski said. “I feel guilty because it feels so good doing it.”

I’ve worked in a zoo before…

By 4 p.m. on homecoming day, swarms of volunteers were working at breakneck speed on paint touch-ups, baseboards, window trim and electrical work.

“You ever worked in such a zoo?” a volunteer asked as he held out a piece of crown moulding for a bit of paint.

“I’ve worked in a zoo before, but nothing like this!”

Window cleaner Kelly Fuller, who’d come from Parksville that morning, was squeegie-ing the last of the windows. Jennifer Rink, from Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s horticultural program, followed behind him to rake his footprints from the landscaped bark mulch.

Landon Par took a break to survey his handiwork; he’d worked on the exterior’s rain screening and brick work.

“I can walk away with a sense of pride,” he said. “I’ve worked for a lot of nice people but this is just a really good feeling.”

Moments before a cube van arrived with all the Smorodens’ belongings, McCann — who has not once been spotted with a clipboard, Blackberry or notepad and has kept the entire project organized only in his head — reflected on what had made the project a success.

“Besides the family actually coming home to see it — that’s the second-best highlight — it’s everyone coming together to make it happen. It’s awesome to see that people really care about their neighbours.”

A miracle

On the wall at the top of the stairs, the Smoroden family and their guests are now greeted with a phrase that reads, “Every day holds a possibility of a miracle.”

On Sunday, Oct. 5 the suggestion became reality.

With a throng of neighbours and volunteers chanting, “Move those trucks! Move those trucks! Move those trucks!,” those trucks pulled away, revealing a handsome new home and shocking the Smoroden family into momentary silence.

The crowd hushed as Steve and Kathy choked back tears.

“We just want to say thank you, to everybody who took part, who helped in any way,” Steve said. “God bless you all. Thank you very much.”

Then Nicholas wheeled into the garage, to the elevator entrance.

For the first time in his life, he went into his home on his own.

And when the elevator door opened to the second floor, he gave his wheels a light push and cruised down the hallway, gliding easily and grinning from ear to ear.

Who helped

More than a hundred businesses donated products, materials and labour to the Smoroden home renovation. To see a full list and find out more information about the Cornerstone Home Team website.

spayne@tricitynews.com

 

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