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Habitat to build its first handicapped-accessible house

June 03, 2002|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

When Freddie Gardin's legs worked, he didn't fret about a flight of stairs.

But in the last 10 years - since he took a bullet in the back on Sumans Avenue, near Wheaton Park - Gardin has relied on his mother and his friends to hoist him and his wheelchair up and down the stairs outside his home.

It's getting old.

Gardin, 33, will be glad to gain some freedom when he; his mother, Eleanor "Peggy" Cooper; and his niece, Jaquita Saunders, move from a second-floor apartment off Jonathan Street to a one-floor, handicapped-accessible house soon to be built on York Road in Halfway.

"I'm just glad I can go in and out on my own," Gardin said.

It will be the 14th home that Habitat for Humanity is to build in Washington County, and the first one outside Hagerstown.

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It also will be the first one designed with wheelchair navigation in mind.

Each doorway will be three feet wide, which is four to six inches wider than normal, said Dick Cushwa, construction manager for Habitat for Humanity of Washington County.

The bathroom will be larger and will have grab rails at the toilet and in the shower. The medicine cabinet will be reachable.

Habitat Executive Director Sherry Brown said the three-bedroom, one-bathroom house will be about 1,100 square feet.

Local attorney Michael Day donated the 80-by-140-foot parcel, she said.

Cooper, her son and granddaughter have been waiting for a while for a Habitat for Humanity house, which is built with volunteer labor and materials and financed through no-interest loans.

Much of the wait was for a $25,000 Lions Club International grant, Brown said.

Under the terms of the grant, Washington County Lions Clubs will add $12,500 and Habitat for Humanity will contribute $12,500, for a total of $50,000.

Habitat uses $46 per square foot to estimate construction costs, meaning a house of that size would normally cost about $50,000. But the modifications for handicapped accessibility will add $5,000 to $7,000 to the cost, Brown said.

Volunteers have already cleared trees and brush from the land, which is known as "the rock pile" because of its rugged terrain, Brown said.

She said excavating bids have come in and Habitat will soon award a contract.

The grant stipulates that the house be built by the end of this year.

Eleanor Cooper, 64 - a mother of six, grandmother of eight and great-grandmother of two - makes no bones about her skepticism until the new house is hers.

"Excited, hysterical - all the other things that fall into the hoo-rah category - is when they give me the keys and my foot is over that threshold," she said.

Still, she and her son let themselves be talked into thinking ahead.

Jaquita, 15, said she likes the idea of moving "a little," but she'll miss her friends.

"I ain't excited, but I'm glad to leave," Gardin said. "I've just been here too long. I'll get some peace."

The old peace was shattered when a bullet pierced his back, near his neck, on June 29, 1992. Gardin had just finished jogging and was going to visit some friends.

"I didn't feel it. I just knew I was on the ground," he recalled.

Gardin said he never knew Jeffrey Rea Bastine and doesn't know why he shot him or Gardin's cousin, Wiyette "Winnie" Hunter, who was seriously injured and died two years later at the age of 26.

"We heard the pop-pop-pop, but we thought it was just firecrackers," Eleanor Cooper said. "It was getting close to the Fourth of July."

Bastine was sentenced to life plus 20 years in prison in 1993.

Gardin was a boxer then, known as Luke Cooper. He won 80 of 100 amateur fights as a welterweight. He won four out of six bouts as a pro.

Many scrapbook photos show his sculpted physique and steely glare, but not the warm smile that he flashes now when he wants to.

There's not enough shelf space for his trophies. Eleanor Cooper has tucked them into all corners of the living room.

Gardin's legs now fail him, but his upper body remains powerful. He goes to the YMCA for at least three hours every day to lift weights.

"I like it," he said. "I've been doing it since ninth grade."

His arms may help him get through the 500 hours of "sweat equity" each Habitat family must perform. Cooper has been doing her share, but Gardin hasn't gotten any assignments yet.

"I've been asking, but they haven't gotten back to me yet," he said.

"We're not sure of his limitations," Brown said. "We could set up sawhorses. Maybe he could paint some trim work. And he's offered to do office work."

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