With help from friends, Harry Lewis Jr. still calls Greenport home

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Greenport resident Harry Lewis, right, works with his boss Matthew Okerblom, to clear some of the overgrowth in the front yard.

His smile lights up a room and his optimism is infectious.

Were it not for the wheelchair, you might not know that 39-year-old Greenporter Harry Lewis Jr. can’t walk.

Mr. Lewis has been living alone since his parents died, his mother in 2008 and his father, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, the following year. Two of his five sisters had also died, Nancy in 2002 at the age of 40, and Cherie in 2003 when she was 35. His other sisters were forced to move from the North Fork — two to Maine and one to Missouri — because they couldn’t support themselves here.

But Mr. Lewis was determined to stay in the community he loves.

Because of his disability and a shortage of funds, however, he has been unable to keep up with repairs to a house that needs roofing, painting inside and out and modifications so his wheelchair can get through the bathroom door. Currently, he has to drag himself into the bathroom.

The money his parents left him is enough to pay taxes, but doesn’t cover maintenance.

That’s where his friends stepped up and stepped in.

Several days a week, Mr. Lewis takes two buses — a trip that takes about an hour and 10 minutes each way — to get himself to the Riverhead campus of Suffolk County Community College, from which he graduated in 1995. He now works there as a student aide and secretary and tutors students who have difficulty with computers.

Knowing of his difficulties, several of his college friends applied to the ABC television show, “Extreme Home Makeover,” hoping they might get Mr. Lewis some help with redesigning his living space. But that help never came.

Not taking no for an answer, his friends have taken on the job themselves. SCCC professor Gwendolyn Branch has launched “The Harry Project” and last Saturday a band of volunteers started clearing the grounds and assessing the work that needs to be done, inside and out.

Tim Drum, a Stony Brook University student interning at SCCC, cut back limbs from trees around the ramp that Mr. Lewis’ father built to enable his son to wheel himself in and out of the house.

Others pulled weeds and cut the grass, and plans are being developed to landscape his grounds. One student has volunteered to keep the grass cut weekly for the next year. Another, whose family is in the landscaping business, is creating a design for plantings.

Ms. Branch is calling on students in her group dynamics class to get involved with the “hands-on project.” She also needs more help organizing the work and identifying people with skills who can volunteer time, plus others who can contribute funds or materials for the project.

“Harry is so positive, so up,” she said.

The overall goal is to clear out the upstairs, which Mr. Lewis uses only to go through memorabilia from his growing up years, and gradually separate the items he cherishes from junk that can go. Among his treasured items are journals both he and his mother kept for years. He loves reading through his mother’s journals that give him the feeling that she’s still with him. And he still continues to add to his own journal.

Once the upstairs is cleared and cleaned, Mr. Lewis hopes to rent it to generate some income to augment his salary.

In his downstairs living space, he needs help repainting and reorganizing and would love to have a bathroom designed to accommodate his wheelchair.

As a baby, his parents discovered their son had what he describes today as “a mild case of cerebral palsy.”

His parents, who struggled to raise five other children, were poor, but determined their son would be independent, he said. His mother’s advice to him was to celebrate every day.

What others would describe as a difficult life filled with challenges, Mr. Lewis calls “very blessed.”

His illness hasn’t affected his digestive system or lungs as cerebral palsy often does. Nor has it affected his speech, something he jokes about, saying it would be hard for him because he loves to talk.

But it robbed him of use of his legs.

For years, Mr. Lewis has been pulling himself upstairs and caring for his own needs with nary a complaint.

A colleague who lives in Mattituck transports Mr. Lewis to work one day a week, driving east to Greenport to pick him up. He doesn’t complain about the other days when he has to depend on buses. He’s just grateful for the one day a week when he doesn’t have to wheel himself down the ramp from his house to the bus stop.

“It really is a community college in the best sense of the word,” Mr. Lewis said.

He takes great comfort that with others at his side, he’s not alone in navigating “the rocky shores of life.”

To take part in “The Harry Project” contact Ms. Branch at 548-2520 or email [email protected].

[email protected]