11/22/13 1:00pm
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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09/08/12 8:00pm
09/08/2012 8:00 PM

JULIE LANE PHOTO | Joe Cherepowich outside Harry Lewis’ house preparing wood supports to be used in framing the newly enlarged bathroom.

Volunteers from the Rotary Club of Greenport were back at Harry Lewis’ house in the Village Saturday putting in framing that will result in a larger wheelchair-accessible bathroom.

It’s all part of the Harry Project, started by Mr. Lewis’ colleagues at Suffolk County Community College and carried forward largely by the Rotarians, with money secured at fund-raising events and contributions of materials and labor from various area contractors and volunteers.

The 40-year-old Mr. Lewis was born with cerebral palsy and lived in the Main Street home with his parents until their deaths  — his mother in 2008 and his father, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, the following year. Two of his five sisters have 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.

JULIE LANE PHOTO | Harry Lewis sits on his porch as Rotarians worked on what by next month will be an enlarged bathroom able to accommodate his wheelchair.

Mr. Lewis loves Greenport and has been determined to stay here despite the difficulties, but he has lacked the funds to maintain the house and do the work necessary to make it wheelchair accessible.

Rotarian Craig Richter, a Greenport contractor who has been managing the project, and Rotarian colleagues Joe Cherepowich, John  Sabitiono and Buddy Johnson have been on site many weekends in the past month with other Rotarian volunteers helping to scope out and implement the project.

Watching the men install insulation in the newly designed bathroom, Mr. Lewis joked that he’ll sleep in there this winter, since it will be the warmest room in the house.

Buddy Johnson pausing briefly from installing insulation.

What might the men have been doing Saturday had they not committed to Harry’s Project?

“I’d be clamming,” Mr. Richter said. Mr. Johnson took a bit of ribbing from his friends when he said he’d be out on the practice course at Island’s End Golf Course.

“Do you need that much practice?” Mr. Richter wanted to know.

Mr. Cherepowich considered he was trading off one project for another because he would have been home creating storage space for his wife. That will fall to other family members this weekend, he said.

For Mr. Johnson, the answer was simple: “Sleeping.”

JULIE LANE PHOTO | John Sabitiono puts up insulation in the bathroom.

While the men were working, they were also looking around at the house to determine other needs.  Mr. Cherepowich offered to enlist other Rotarians to come out and cut back overgrown bushes in the yard to open up the space for Mr. Lewis.

“I think they’re all extraordinary,” Mr. Lewis said about the Rotarians, who are tackling the job of making his life easier. “When I stop to think about it, it’s overwhelming. I’m amazed day by day with the changes taking place.”

JULIE LANE PHOTO | Rotarian Craig Richter working on newly framed bathroom that will provide Harry Lewis with wheelchair access.

08/18/12 5:30pm
08/18/2012 5:30 PM

Thanks to local Rotarians, Harry Lewis’ Greenport house is being made handicapped accessible. The 40-year-old suffers from cerebral palsy which has robbed him of use of his legs.

Volunteers from the Rotary Club of Greenport descended on Harry Lewis’ house this weekend armed with tools and determination to make the structure handicapped accessible. That’s critical for the 40-year old who is confined to a wheelchair, having been born with cerebral palsy.

Efforts to help convert his house started in January 2011 when co-workers at the Riverhead Campus of Suffolk County Community College launched the Harry Project. But their volunteer efforts proved insufficient to tackle major work that required professionals.

That’s where Mr. Lewis’ friend and colleague, SCCC Professor Gwendolyn Branch, took the next step in making the Harry Project zing. She told members of her Riverhead Rotary about Harry and they, in turn, carried the word to Greenport Rotary members who rapidly embraced the effort.

At Christmas, local Rotarian and Greenport contractor Craig Richter installed a back door on the house with plans to put in a ramp that will give Mr. Lewis a second entrance to his home.

Friday, Mr. Richter and other Rotarians were back to start work on widening the entry way to Mr. Lewis’ bathroom so he’ll no longer have to drag himself along the floor, but can wheel himself into the bathroom to use the facilities. Then there will ongoing work to make his kitchen handicapped accessible. Eventually, a second floor apartment will be made rentable to provide Mr. Lewis with some added income.

He 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.

For the full story on the Rotarians’ work on Mr. Lewis’ house, see Thursday’s Suffolk Times.

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04/07/12 8:43am
04/07/2012 8:43 AM

COURTESY PHOTO | Rallying to raise funds to help modify Harry Lewis's Greenport house are, from left, Lisa Israel of Richmond Realty; Eileen Solomon, president of the Greenport Rotary Club; Jerry Tuthill of Claudio's Restaurant; Robin Walden of Staples Monuments; Craig Richter of R&R Builders; Beatsie Tuthill of Claudio's; Joe Cherepowich of McMann Price Insurance Agency; and Kathy Claudio-Wyse, Jan and Bill Claudio of Claudio's.

The Greenport Rotary Club and Claudio’s Restaurant will hold the second annual Locals for Locals Spaghetti Dinner on Tuesday, April 17 to raise funds for The Harry Project to help Greenport resident Harry V. Lewis Jr.

Dinner seatings will begin at noon and continue through the day to 8 p.m.

Harry was born with cerebral palsy. His house needs modifications to make it easier for him to manage living there on his own. The Harry Project will bring community members and businesses together to get the work done.

When the Rotarians first met him, they were impressed with his positive can-do attitude, his determination and his willingness to help others. A 1995 graduate of Suffolk County Community College, Harry has worked as a student aid in the Student Support Services Department at the Riverhead campus of the college. He relies on a wheel chair to get around but remains totally independent.

The Harry Project, which is sponsored by the Suffolk Community College Association, came to the attention of the Greenport Rotary Club through Gwendolyn Branch, assistant professor at Suffolk County Community College, Eastern Campus.  After both his parents died in 2009, Harry has been living alone in the house where he grew up in.  Even though the house needs considerable repair and modification for his physical disability, Harry makes the best of each day, according to Rotary Club members.  Because his wheelchair does not fit though the doorway, Harry has to drag himself into the bathroom. Cooking is also a challenge because the kitchen counters are not at his level.

With the backing of the Greenport Rotary Club, independent contractor and Rotarian Craig Richter visited Harry during the holiday season in December to replace a broken door to keep out the wind and cold.  Harry responded to this effort with a heartfelt note. “I would like to thank all involved with getting me a new door for Christmas. Your generosity of spirit truly touches my heart. Thank you for caring enough to do this.”

The Greenport Rotary Club is now taking this project a step further by dedicating this year’s “Locals for Locals” dinner to Harry. The Harry Project is working with local architects, contractors and suppliers — who are donating as much of their services as possible — to do more modifications and improvements at Harry’s house. Greenport Rotary members will help with whatever labor they can provide.

“For a guy faced with the challenges he has, his attitude is unbelievably good,” commented Craig Richter, who replaced the broken door to his house with financial help from the Rotary Club. “We really need to help this guy.”

“Claudio’s  Restaurant is a great venue for a great cause,” said Eileen Solomon, Greenport Rotary Club president. “I hope the whole community will come out and join us as we put our resources together to create a safe environment for Harry.” All funds raised will be used to support The Harry Project.

“It’s important to us to be involved on a personal level” added Ms. Solomon. “Rotary members will be cooking, busing tables and dishing up the meals. We are asking the public’s support for our friend and neighbor Harry.”

Tickets for the event are $18, $12 for seniors and children under 12. The full course dinner includes salad and dessert. Seating begins at 12 noon and continues throughout the day until closing time at approximately 8 p.m. Take out is also available.

For tickets, contact Robin Walden, (631)987-5264; Craig Richter, (516)443-6005 or Gwen Branch (631)548-2520 or visit greenportrotary.org for more information.