Disabled Greenport man enjoying benefit of massive community effort

11/22/2013 1:00 PM |

GRANT PARPAN PHOTO | Harry Lewis, who has cerebral palsy, recently had renovations in his home completed thanks to the effort of volunteers from the Rotary Club of Greenport.

It’s not often you hear someone say the bathroom is their favorite room in the house.

But if you hear that from Harry Lewis, you understand.

There was a time, not too long ago, when Mr. Lewis, who has cerebral palsy, couldn’t access his bathroom while in a wheelchair.

Instead, he’d have to drop from the chair to the floor of his Greenport home, drag himself down the hallway and through the narrow doorway and pull himself up onto the toilet or into the shower.

Now, more than two years after the launch of The Harry Project, the bathroom in the home where Mr. Lewis has lived in for more than 40 years is finally handicapped accessible.

“There is not a day that goes by when I go into that bathroom that my heart doesn’t fill up with so much appreciation and gratitude to everyone who helped make that happen,” Mr. Lewis, 41, told volunteers from the Rotary Club of Greenport at a breakfast at Peconic Landing Tuesday. “To be able to go in there easily and safely and to just take a nice warm shower. I swear that bathroom is the nicest room in the house.

“I invite all of you to visit it any time,” he said to a room full of laughter.

GRANT PARPAN PHOTO | Harry Lewis (center) with members of the Greenport Rotary Tuesday.

It’s the luxuries you don’t even think about — at least not until you have them — that you end up appreciating the most.

Harry Jr. was just a year old in 1972, when Nancy and Harry Lewis Sr. purchased the family’s Main Street home. At the time, not knowing that young Harry, who had five sisters, would be diagnosed with cerebral palsy, they bought a house that was by no means handicapped-friendly.

Due in part to the family’s modest means and in part to the parents’ wish that their only son be independent, the house was never renovated.

JULIE LANE FILE PHOTO | Contractor Craig Richter works on renovating the bathroom in September 2012.

“The house pretty much stayed the way it was and I adapted to it,” Harry recalled this week. “In a way, I guess, that was a good thing. My mother used to tell me, ‘You know, the world outside isn’t necessarily going to be disabled accessible — you have to be an adaptable individual.’”

And so it was that Harry Jr. lived a mostly normal life without the use of his legs. Of course, there were bumps in the road. When it was difficult for him to get to his job at the old Arcade department store, his sister Kelly lobbied for handicapped accessible sidewalks, still used in the village today. And if you’ve ever entered the Greenport High School home economics classroom through the handicapped ramp outside, you entered through a ramp installed for Mr. Lewis.

It wasn’t until a series of tragedies struck the family in the 2000s that Harry Jr. began having trouble getting around his house. First, his sister Nancy died in 2002 at the age of 40, followed the next year by the loss of his 35-year-old sister Cherie. His mom died from congestive heart failure in 2008 and his dad, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, passed away the following winter.

With his three surviving sisters living out of state, two in Maine and one in Missouri, Mr. Lewis soon found himself alone in an aging house.

“We had a raccoon problem and the roof was leaking,” he recalled. “Water was coming in when it rained. I could actually put my fist underneath the back door. I used to have to put towels down to keep the cold air and the creatures out.”

About a year after his father died, some of Mr. Lewis’ friends and former classmates at Suffolk County Community College in Riverhead, where he graduated in 1995 and currently works two days a week, applied to the television show “Extreme Home Makeover.”

Gwendolyn Branch, an assistant professor who works with Mr. Lewis, told him that if he wasn’t picked for the show, she would make sure to undertake a local effort to improve his life at home. And thus, The Harry Project was born at the college in the spring of 2011.

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Matthew Okerblom helps Mr. Lewis clear overgrowth in his front yard in May 2011.

Ms. Branch, who recruited the dean of the school and her group dynamics class to help, outlined a six-phase plan that included raising funds and public awareness for the effort, recruiting volunteers to donate supplies and assist in the renovation, getting building approvals and completing construction.

“I’m glad so many people have wanted to help him out,” Ms. Branch said Tuesday. “He’s getting the benefit of so many people’s hard work.”

The Rotary Club of Greenport, which has raised $12,000 for The Harry Project and whose members have spent their weekends helping with renovations, has been among the biggest contributors.

Rotarian Craig Richter, a contractor and former town councilman, managed the project.

Speaking to The Suffolk Times on a Saturday last September, Mr. Richter shrugged off all the hard work he and fellow Rotarians, including Buddy Johnson, were doing that day.

“I’d be clamming,” Mr. Richter said, when asked how he’d otherwise spend his time. Mr. Johnson said he’d just be playing golf.

Mr. Lewis said he appreciates the sacrifice.

“I can’t express how wonderful it is to have a home that is accessible,” he said. “Day by day, month by month it’s becoming a safer place for me to live.”

So far the bathroom has been gutted and completely renovated and the hallway to enter the bathroom can now be navigated by wheelchair. The roof and front and back doors have been replaced. An animal control officer has rid the house of pests and closed up all the holes. The lawns and bushes have also been groomed and maintained.

One of Mr. Lewis’ favorite changes is a light that’s been installed on the front porch, making it easier for him to enter the house in the dark after the 70-minute bus ride home from work.

He recalls how Rotarian Robin Walden got a chuckle out of his amazed reaction to the remote-controlled light.

“This is like how people must have felt when electricity was first turned on,” Mr. Lewis joked.

Ms. Branch said the next big step for The Harry Project will be renovating the kitchen, where the cabinets could be lowered. She also said the house needs to still be painted and a first-floor room needs to be fully converted into a bedroom.

She said the project hasn’t just resonated with people because of Mr. Lewis’ story, but also because he has such a giant personality.

“He’s so positive,” she said. “He’s always up, and that’s infectious behavior.”

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