The day began with the whirring of power tools. Drills, saws, nail guns – tools of the trade for Pete Elliott through 25 years of building maintenance, and music to his ears this day.
Elliott, 52, was “the go-to guy” to get things fixed at VIP Management apartment complexes, an eager participant in the company’s home makeovers for the less fortunate. Tuesday, however, the building crew came to his house. About 25 former co-workers pitched in to get the Elliott home ready for a power wheelchair, a symbol of the changes in his life since being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
“I used to be the one helping others,” Elliott said, his speech slowed and slurred by the disease. Trouble talking was his first symptom about two years ago. His hands were next. “One day I was able to hold my drill, and the next day I couldn’t. It happened real fast,” he said. “It’s a real ugly disease.”
Since then, he has lost much of the use of his arms, and his balance is shaky. Over the past few weeks, he’s fallen frequently, even with his walker, and it’s become clear he needs a wheelchair, said wife Veronica Elliott.
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“It’s a sad reality to see that has to be done, because then you realize the disease has progressed. We’re at this next stage,” she said.
But a wheelchair brings mobility only across the flat and open. Pete Elliott’s childhood home, bought from his parents 15 years ago, had steps leading outside and a sunken living room. Bathrooms and doors were too small for a four-wheeling traveler.
“These ramps to me are freedom. You get isolated in the house and these ramps will let me get outside,” Elliott said.
The VIP crew, labor donated for the day by the company and materials supplied by an anonymous benefactor, built ramps to the front yard and backyard and a small slope into the living room. Granite countertops and a new sink grace the kitchen. Motion-activated faucets are on order for his bathroom, which now stands open to his bedroom for easy access. Raley’s, where Veronica Elliott works, sent doughnuts, coffee and lunch.
Project manager Brian Stacey said planning this remodel took a little extra time. “We wanted to make this one count,” he said.
“It feels good to be here, doing something for him,” said neighbor Chad Leazer, who grew up alongside the Elliotts’ two children and worked at VIP with Pete.
The company rallied to Pete Elliott’s cause because he’s family, said Ashley Fisher. “When you work with someone for so long and then you know they’re going through something, you want to be there,” she said.
In October, the VIP team decorated a wheelchair as a pirate ship for a “Peter Can” (think Pan) themed walk for the ALS Association. Dressed as Lost Boys and fairies, the team carried signs such as “Tink positive” and “ALS is a croc.” The year before, they walked in Pete-sloganed T-shirts. “It was raining and cold – I’ve never laughed so hard,” Fisher said, chuckling with Pete at the memory.
“We come and feel sorry for (Pete) and then we leave laughing,” said company manager Chad Brown. Elliott’s good humor helps, but all their good deeds pay off, he said.
“We feel we get as much as we would from a day working. The teamwork, the camaraderie,” Brown said. “Our people are working miracles in our properties every day, but they never get to work together. Plus, the goodwill we provide to the community,” he said.
“I lost a lot when I got this (disease), but the company has been by my side,” Elliott said. “I consider myself lucky. There are a lot of people with this disease that don’t have this support.”
Having built ramps, rails and all the rest, he knows is a win for everyone. “I used to do this kind of stuff with them and it always made me feel so good. So I know it’s making them feel good to do this,” Elliott said. “But there’s no way I’ll ever be able to repay them.”
“How do you thank people for such a wonderful deal?” Veronica Elliott asked.