By Mark E. Vogler
---- — METHUEN – Frank Gioia got all choked up emotionally last week when a small group of Santa’s helpers showed up at his Colonial style house on Pleasant Valley Street to hang a holiday wreath on the wheelchair ramp they recently built for him.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better Christmas present than this,” said Gioia, a 70-year-old Marine veteran of the Vietnam war who has needed a ramp since suffering a double stroke seven years ago that paralyzed much of the left side of his body.
“If it wasn’t for all these gentlemen here today, I’d never see one of these. I can’t thank them enough,” he said.
The Santa’s helpers who made the ramp possible are representatives from a coalition of local community agencies and veterans organizations that recently united to work on projects that assist local veterans. They include the Lawrence/Methuen Community Coalition (LMCC), the Queen City Chapter #2, the Methuen Veteran Services Office, a city councilor who built the ramp pro bono and the Home Depot Foundation – which awarded a $5,000 grant that will pay for the supplies to build several ramps for veterans.
“Before the ramp, his wife would have to help him walk up five steps to get in the house,” said Don Silva, treasurer of the local DAV chapter, which serves Lawrence, Methuen, Andover and North Andover.
“So, this is a big relief for her as well as him,” he said.
Silva said he first learned of Gioia’s hardship during the summer when Gioia contacted him, requesting any kind of assistance. Silva later filed papers to have the DAV represent the veteran as his clamant representative in future dealings.
Meanwhile, LMCC’s Director Harold Magoon learned of a possible grant from the Home Depot Foundation and applied for the money.
“We’ve been trying to get some grants to support the DAV because the labor costs kill any kind of project like this,” Magoon said.
Though not a veteran, Magoon feels a strong personal connection to the American men and women in the armed forces. His father, the late Richard Magoon, was a second lieutenant in the Air Force. He was a veteran of World War II and the Korean War.
“My dad died when I was 7. I don’t have a lot of memories of him, but I still have his uniform,” Magoon said.
“I see a lot of impediments to veterans getting services. And the coalition is committed to helping them,” he said.
So is East District City Councilor Ronald Marsan, who donated his time for the actual construction of the ramp.
“I help vets because they need help,” said Marsan, who worked about 14 hours on the project two weekends ago.
“I have today because of them. We have our freedom because of the vets. We need to be more considerate of them. To build something like this, it would probably be around $8,000 – but for the generosity of Home Depot,” he said.
During the years Gioia has been shopping around for a ramp, $4,000 was the cheapest price he got.
“I just couldn’t afford it,” Gioia said.
“Any time I put money down for it, something always came up. It’s tough to pay for something like this when you’re on a fixed income. There was a time I didn’t think I’d ever get one of these,” he said.
Veterans with disabilities who need a wheelchair ramp can seek financial help through their community and the Veterans Administration.
“It could still be done, but it would be a time-consuming project,” Methuen Veterans Services Director Thomas H. Hargreaves said of the conventional way for a veteran to get a wheelchair ramp.
“This is the easiest way to get it done, because we’re not dealing with all the VA stuff and all the bureaucracy. We don’t have to go through all the paper work in getting approval,” Hargreaves said.
Silva, of the local DAV chapter, noted that the bureaucratic process involving filing applications, following design specifications and going before municipal boards to get ramps approved can often discourage veterans from seeking the government’s help.
“There’s too much involved when you deal directly with any form of government like this,” Silva said.
“If the government built this ramp, they’d have to follow the specifications. But because it’s a temporary ramp and it’s a personal home, they don’t have to follow the specifications,” he said.
Silva said he also plans to seek volunteer help from other groups in building future wheelchair ramps for veterans. Groups like YouthBuild and the Greater Lawrence Vocational Technical School could provide free labor while learning a trade, he said.
“The DAV continues to try and support our local veterans through whatever means possible in order for members to stay in their homes where they are most comfortable,” he said.
Up until recently, living at home had become a tough challenge for both Gioia and his wife, who have been married for 35 years.
“It was kind of a heavy burden just getting Frank to walk down the stairs, said Carol Gioia, 69, who with her son would carry him off the end of the porch.
“Before they put in the ramp, the only time we were actually getting out of the house was to go to the doctors or for therapy,” she said.
Carol Gioia suffers from Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a common lung disease which makes it difficult to breathe. She takes oxygen.
“Getting this ramp is a real blessing and it’s the best Christmas present for both of us,” Carol said.
“What I like about this, it gives Frank some freedom to be able to get outside on his own without my help, to explore the world by himself. Before, it was so hard. Now, he’ll get out of the house a lot more. And this will lighten my load very much,” she said.
“I can say God bless them all. They gave us a merry Christmas,” she said.
Veterans who need a wheelchair or other assistance can call the DAV at 978 975-8793 (coalition number). Wheelchair construction requests will be honored on a first come-first serve basis, according to Silva.