Home Angels among us

Angels among us


Story by Chris Graham
[email protected]

The angel came to Mary Martin not in a vision, but on the phone.

“We’re putting an addition on the back of your house, and you can’t say no,” the angel told Mary, mother of Joseph, in our modern-day retelling of the Christmas story an active Waynesboro 12-year-old who is wheelchair-bound due to complications from cloacal exstrophy, spina bifida and chiari malformation.

That the Martins’ two-story Maple Avenue home isn’t wheelchair-friendly wasn’t an issue when they moved there in 2001. Up until a couple of years ago, Joseph was walking with crutches, and a physical therapist was working with him to improve his ability to get around without the aid of a wheelchair.

“And as abnormal as it seems, for us that was normal. This is what we live and breathe. I wasn’t thinking that he would lose his legs. He was getting stronger. He was building up his ability to do things. I wasn’t thinking about him being in a wheelchair. That wasn’t the way I was seeing his life going,” Mary Martin said.

One of the 40 surgeries that Joseph has had to undergo to date in his young life rendered the work with the crutches moot, inserting rods along his spine to keep his upper body in proper alignment. The surgery also made even basic things like getting upstairs to his bedroom and getting ready for school in the morning difficult if not next to impossible without help from Mom.

“After he was born, I became his primary-care nurse. Which wasn’t easy for an English major,” joked Mary, now a freelance writer after serving for several years as a weekly-newspaper editor in Charlottesville.

It was the constant demand for attention to Joseph’s daily needs that pushed Mary from the full-time work world, straining the family finances to the point where the new normal for the Martins was a mortgage on a home with more than $100,000 in medical bills rolled in that Mom could neither afford for financial reasons to sell nor for physical and emotional reasons to continue to live in.

And then came the phone call, a turning point in a months-long effort that began with a video by Berkeley Glenn Elementary School teacher Suzanne Nesbit that was sent to “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “Extreme Home Makeover” with the goal of trying to entice one of the TV shows to provide financing to make the Martins’ home wheelchair-accessible.

“My initial thought was, We can’t wait for Oprah or Ty. There’s some things that we can gather together as a community to make this happen,” said Jeff Fife, the angel on the other end of the phone call in our story, and the executive director of the Waynesboro Family YMCA, one of several community organizations taking part in a local project, called A Safe Haven, that is giving the Martins a new start.

Volunteers from Crozet Baptist Church have taken the lead in fundraising, collecting $100,000 in pledges to get the construction work on the project under way this summer. Rebuilding Together has provided the on-site project management and the financial vehicle in the form of its nonprofit status for the collection of monies. The local Lowe’s and Home Depot stores have kicked in money and materials and hundreds of hours of volunteer labor. And the YMCA provided the catalyst in the phone call from Fife, who had to do some convincing to get Mary Martin on board with the idea that he had in mind.

“This family is phenomenal. The barriers they’ve been able to overcome on their own, they’re just tremendous. Sometimes you just need to say, Help, and that’s OK. I knew she wasn’t going to say, Help, but I didn’t have a problem asking other people to help,” Fife said.

“Jeff calls and says, We’re putting an addition on the back of your house, and you can’t say no. I said, That’s not your job. That’s my job,” Martin recalls that initial conversation. “He argued with me and argued with me, and pulled other people into arguing with me. My hillbilly pride gets in the way. I’m originally from Southwest Virginia. Hillbillies don’t do charity. I’ll help you build your barn, but I don’t need any help with mine.

“A friend said, Mary, let them build your barn. That’s really what it is, Mary.”

Joseph is the middle of Mary’s three children. “We weren’t high-risk. I’d had a perfectly healthy child 20 months before. I hadn’t even had an ultrasound,” Mary thinks back to the walkup to Joseph’s 1997 birth.

In the delivery room at Martha Jefferson Hospital in Charlottesville, “I remember his head came out, and his dad said, It’s a boy, he’s beautiful. And then when the rest of him came out, it got really, really quiet.”

Joseph’s bladder and bowels were outside of his body, and attached was a sack of spinal fluid bigger than his head. “They moved him into the corner, and I could hear them talking. What’s this? I think that’s bladder. What’s this? This is clearly bowel,” Mary said.

“I asked the nurse, Is he going to be OK? And she held my hand tight and said, Honey, we don’t know,” Mary said.

That Joseph is not only still with us but is also among the more vibrant 12-year-olds that you’ll ever meet is a testament to modern medicine, his mother’s attentiveness and his own strong will. An outdoors enthusiast, Joseph recently bagged his first buck on a hunting trip, and turned Mom’s stomach inside out when he went missing for a brief time a few months ago before she found him at the South River fishing.

“One of the stories from this that I will always be able to remember,” said David Miracle, a volunteer on the Safe Haven project, “is when we were framing the second-floor deck, and Joseph came out, and it was hot, it was August, and one of my carpenters said, Don’t just watch, grab a hammer and start driving nails. So he did. He sat up there for a couple of hours, driving nails. Every two inches. That floor there will never squeak, I guarantee it.”

“We’re going to miss everybody when they’re not here,” Joseph said of the work on the home that should be wrapping up in the next few weeks. It was a crisp late fall day, and he was out on the front porch with his sisters, Holly, 14, and Rebekah, 9, playing keepaway with a basketball and engaging in swordplay with a pair of plastic swords.

It was Rebekah who stole the show in the video that got the Safe Haven project off to its kickstart. Asked on camera what she would do to make Joseph’s life easier, with the thinking that she was being prompted to say something about how nice it would be if “Oprah” or “Extreme Home Makeover” would help with the home addition, she answered instead: “Well, I would make it so Joseph could walk.”

Her answer on the front porch to a question on what the project means to the family was more direct: “He can help with laundry now.”

“I’m going to love being able to do that,” Joseph quickly chimed in.

The addition that will get Joseph back into the fold in terms of chores is the handiwork of architect Llyn Walker, whose goal from the outset has been “about creating an independent-living space for Joseph, and independent living that’s also very much integrated with the rest of the family.”

“We really had to maximize square footage because a handicapped person requires several times more square footage than an ambulatory person,” Walker said.

Which necessitated not only a new laundry room, but a new kitchen with a refrigerator and freezer and cabinets and cupboards and a stove that Joseph can reach. And a bedroom with a walk-in closet and a bathroom featuring an accessible bathtub and shower.

“Life is going to be dramatically different for us,” Mary Martin said. “Mornings and nights in particular, because that’s when Joseph requires my attention the most. Right now, he can’t reach sinks. His wheelchair won’t fit upstairs, and that’s of course the only family bathroom, so I’m hoping he’ll be able to do things like getting his teeth brushed, things you don’t think about having to have help with at 12.”

There is still some important work to do to get the work done, both on-site and the fundraising. The goal for Safe Haven organizers is to leave the Martins not only with a new home but also a sense of financial independence that hasn’t been there with Mary having to step back from work to take care of Joseph and the accumulating medical bills and the rest.

“Mary is so focused on taking care of her family. This is just something small we can do to help her and help these wonderful children get a new lease on life,” Jeff Fife said.

“The thing that we’re blessed by is that we can do something to make somebody’s life better,” David Miracle said. “The blessing on our side is tremendous – to meet Joseph and see a little boy who is not afraid to do anything. He just grabs life by the horns full blast and holds on tight. Just to be a part of that has been amazing.”

The feeling from the Martins on the part about this story being amazing is mutual.

“Holly asked me a couple of weeks ago, Why are so many people so nice to us?” Mary Martin said. “I said, I don’t know. There are just a lot of amazing people in the world.”




Safe Haven
If you would like to help with medical expenses and mortgage paydown, please send a check to:
Crozet Baptist Church
5804 St. George Ave.
Crozet, Va. 29932
(Martin Family/Safe Haven on the memo)


For construction donations, please send your check to:
Rebuilding Together/Safe Haven Project
21 Chestnut Road
Staunton, Va. 24401
(Rebuilding Together/Safe Haven Project on the memo).


Donations are tax deductible to the fullest extent of the law.



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