Hazel ParkApril 16, 2014
Hazel Park man needs votes to win handicap-accessible van
By Andy Kozlowski
C & G Staff Writer
HAZEL PARK — John Wirth Jr. has family and friends who love him, but he’s an independent spirit who doesn’t want to burden them when he wants to go somewhere.
Going places is tough, though, when you have cerebral palsy.
The Hazel Park resident, 31, was diagnosed with the condition at birth, and he’s been in a wheelchair much of his life. With little control of his legs, and a right hand that is weaker than his left, getting in and out of his Mercury Villager is extraordinarily difficult.
Unless he calls someone to help him in and out of the van, he has two options for driving it. He can roll his wheelchair up to the van, fall out of his chair onto the ground, and then crawl up into the driver’s seat, or he can hoist himself up from the chair into the vehicle by pulling on a handle in the door frame — something not advisable, since they’re not designed to support a person’s full body weight.
He works as a greeter at the Walmart in Troy, and he’s missed work before because of the difficulty of getting in and out of the vehicle. He’s tried transportation services, but even if the fees weren’t a concern — and they do add up, he says — there’s the fact that Michigan weather makes it hard wheeling through the rain and snow to the bus stop.
Amy Panik, Wirth’s younger sister, said her brother has also had to deal with the loss of their father, his primary caregiver, ever since he passed away two years ago due to pancreatic cancer. Less than a month passed between the family learning he had terminal cancer and him passing away two days before Christmas.
“It was tough, because John was there when (his father) passed away. He was the one who called 911,” Panik said. “I never sit down and talk about it with him because I know it would tear his heart out. But we did grieve as a family, and believe me, it affected him in ways I can’t even describe. It was devastating to him — even traumatizing. John was the only boy in the family, and he had the name of his father.”
Now, she’s trying to help her brother improve his quality of life by securing him a handicap-accessible vehicle that would allow him to go to work and be independent without having to struggle in and out of his chair and van.
Panik entered Wirth in a contest to win a handicap-accessible van through the organization National Mobility Awareness Month, which aims to educate people during the month of May about the challenges facing those with handicaps.
According to their website, more than 18 million people in the U.S. and Canada have mobility issues, constituting the largest minority group in the country, and the only group anyone can become a part of at any time. Their ranks include one in five of the elderly.
Those who want to help Wirth win the handicap-accessible vehicle can vote for his story by visiting mobilityawarenessmonth.com, clicking on “Local Heroes” and searching for Wirth by name. At press time, he already had more than 2,700 votes. The deadline to vote is May 9.
“The contest is a wonderful opportunity, and I’m very humbled by all of the people who have voted for me,” Wirth said. “It’s very humbling, and I hope I can get a van. I know there’s a chance I might not get one, but I’m thankful for the support from everybody, including my family and friends.”
Panik said that her brother has endured a lot, but he’s a kind and gentle soul who manages to see the good in everything.
“He’s the most positive and optimistic person I’ve ever known,” Panik said. “He’s just very caring and loving. If anybody ever has problems, he’s there to talk to, a shoulder to lean on, which I think is awesome for someone with difficulties of their own, how he’s more concerned to help other people.”
Panik also noted her brother is into magic tricks and would like to attend more magic conventions if he could drive himself around more easily. He also has a great sense of humor, she says, something that quickly becomes evident when talking to him.
“I say sometimes I should be a stand-up comedian, but I’d fall over,” Wirth quips.
His sense of humor helps soften the frustration that comes with mobility issues.
“It’s nerve-wracking to watch him get in and out of his vehicle, since he falls quite a bit,” Panik said. “One thing that was devastating was when I got married, when he was in the church parking lot, he fell, and a bunch of uncles ran to help him, and he’s all dressed up and everyone’s dressed up, and it just happened. He’s gotten hurt a number of times.”
With his own handicap-accessible van, Wirth wouldn’t have to throw himself onto the ground to climb into the vehicle, or try to pull himself up into the van. There are a variety of ways handicap-accessible vehicles can lift or roll a wheelchair-bound individual safely in or out.
Having such a vehicle would dramatically improve his quality of life. But whatever happens, Wirth said he won’t let anything get him down.
“One thing my dad taught me, from a very young age, is to never give up — especially someone in my situation, with a physical disability. I’d definitely say to everybody — those with physical or mental disabilities, and those without — to never give up, because you never know what you can reach.”
To vote for John Wirth Jr., visit www.mobilityawarenessmonth.com, click on “Local Heroes,” and search for him by name. The Wirth family can also be reached by calling (248) 399-3527.