“I was extremely depressed. I might still be there if it wasn’t for Claire [volunteer] and the Maybelle Center. Without my [motorized] wheelchair, there’s a very grumpy me. If I don’t have a chair, that means I can’t take care of myself. I’m not healthy.
You can’t tell someone like me you’re supposed to be inside. I don’t use my motorized chair as a vehicle. It’s my feet.
I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. We all have challenges. As long as I have a [motorized] chair, I can have a life. I can go to school part-time, volunteer, or whatever I can do. But if I don’t have a chair …”
Andrea had all the ingredients for success in our society: athletic, intelligent, articulate, and mechanically-minded. She didn’t touch drugs or alcohol. She held great jobs at Intel, Apple and the Department of Agriculture. And she was the proud mom of two Jesuit High School graduates.
But when we met Andrea nearly seven years ago, she was living in Helen Swindells, one of the single room occupancy (SRO) hotels in Old Town. Walking was almost impossible, and she had used a motorized wheelchair for many years. Though she didn’t know it at the time, a rare birth defect had left her without essential bones in her feet. And she struggled with undiagnosed mental illness.
Andrea was part of our Visitation Program, a stalwart of our organization since its inception. Claire visited her weekly and helped open her mail.
Even with the modest rent at Helen Swindells, Andrea was finding it overwhelming to keep up with bills. Her part-time job wasn’t even covering rent. And despite her brilliant mind, her physical challenges made working full-time unfeasible.
Fierce independence, unconventional solutions
But Andrea was fiercely independent and always resourceful. One day, Andrea had a wonderfully-eccentric idea:
“I saw all these wheelchairs and scooters by the dumpster. Tons of them. I said to myself, I could use those for parts! They said, ‘Take them.’ So here I am in this SRO, full of wheelchairs. But I didn’t care. I cleaned and sanitized those things. I started gathering money and buying batteries. And before you know it, I had a whole fleet of electric chairs I was renting and selling. Everybody came to me.”
For almost four years, Andrea repaired and rented out motorized chairs for as little as $25 a month. People came to her in droves. She was even invited to tell her story at a Maybelle Center fundraiser for the new Center building.
Andrea remembered how rewarding it was to see the independence that a motorized chair brought people. But it became overwhelming to see so much need every day. She said, “it broke her heart.”
Saying goodbye and hello
After paying rent, Andrea saved almost every penny from renting her fleet of motorized wheelchairs. In a feat of unconventional cleverness, Andrea bought a 1966 Chris Craft cabin cruiser boat. It was 41 feet long and her ticket out of Helen Swindells. Andrea permanently anchored it in Willamette Cove, outside of St. Johns.
Andrea’s face beamed as she reflected on her “pride and joy”:
“It was a home. A cabin on the river. I had peace of mind. I didn’t have to pay rent, and I still had my part-time job at the Moda Center. I kept a motorized chair on my boat and one on shore and paddled between them.
In the winter, I put Christmas lights all over my cruiser. It was perfect.”
It’s because of the photos
Claire occasionally kept in touch with Andrea over the years. But Maybelle Center hadn’t seen Andrea since she moved from Helen Swindells into her boat nearly seven years ago.
But last fall, our Support Services Navigator (Maegann) ran into Andrea on a bus. Even though Maegann wasn’t an employee at Maybelle Center during Andrea’s tenure, Maegann recognized Andrea from old photos. Andrea had never set foot in the building she had helped fundraise for, so many years ago. Maegann encouraged her to stop by the Center next time she was in the neighborhood.
And from that day on, Andrea has been a regular at Maybelle Center once again. Like an old friend whom you haven’t seen for years, you pick up right where you left off. She was warmly received by many members who knew her when she lived at Helen Swindells.
Andrea recounted the last few years with her newly-reacquainted friends. After an enormous log damaged and ultimately sunk her cruiser, she was homeless for nearly a year. A retired Maybelle Center employee ran into Andrea at a day shelter and helped her find a “really nice place in Oregon City.”
And while Maybelle Center typically serves the low-income apartments in Downtown Portland, members can continue membership if they move outside of our service area. So for the last three-and-a-half years, Andrea has “slept in Oregon City” but maintained her life in Portland where she has her support system.
And then there was silence
Then in early 2017, Andrea just disappeared. No one had heard from her in over a month. She wasn’t responding to emails, and she didn’t have a phone. Claire agreed to stop by Andrea’s apartment to check on her.
Claire found Andrea cooped up in her apartment. Her chair had broken down six weeks ago, and life had stopped. Andrea was now sitting in a manual wheelchair. And while that sufficed in her apartment, she couldn’t reach the Tri-met bus stop with a manual wheelchair. There was a gravel section of the road that was nearly impossible to transverse without a motorized chair.
New “feet” and delight
Claire worked with Support Services to arrange for Andrea to receive a motorized wheelchair – a donation from a recently deceased member at Macdonald Residence. It was Andrea’s first day out after six weeks of being shut-in. Andrea smiled from ear-to-ear, eagerly waiting for the battery to charge before her maiden voyage.
Andrea, we’re so happy you have your “feet” back. And we’re so glad to have you back in our community.