Sandy Abrahamson (left) and Karen Sticklin test the weight capacity of a lift chair Tuesday afternoon at the MSHH Donor Closet in Edmonds. (Kevin Clark / The Herald )

Sandy Abrahamson (left) and Karen Sticklin test the weight capacity of a lift chair Tuesday afternoon at the MSHH Donor Closet in Edmonds. (Kevin Clark / The Herald )

Edmonds man leaves legacy of ‘charging ahead’ despite diagnosis

Bill Brayer, who lived with Multiple Sclerosis, founded the Edmonds nonprofit MS Helping Hands Donor Closet. He died at 88.

EDMONDS — A family came into the Edmonds MS Helping Hands Donor Closet earlier this month, seeking a wheelchair for their daughter, who lives with ALS. She hadn’t been able to get out of bed since Dec. 15.

“We were able to pick the chair, add the accessories and we had her up out of bed,” said Jackie Hall, MSHH Donor Closet volunteer. “In fact, she went so far around the block with her dad she disappeared.”

Five days a week, volunteers bustle around the Donor Closet just off Edmonds Way, fixing and fitting donated medical and mobility equipment. Nearly every square foot of the Donor Closet’s concrete floor is packed with lift chairs, scooters, wheelchairs, walkers and home accessories.

Longtime Edmonds resident Bill Brayer began the project in his garage, with a mission to expand access to mobility and medical equipment for those living with Multiple Sclerosis, a disease of the brain and spine that can cause people to lose the ability to write, speak or walk.

Brayer, a champion of MS issues, father, grandfather and the 2013 Edmonds Citizen of the Year, died on Jan. 31. He was just short of turning 89.

His legacy lives on in over three dozen volunteers helping people access mobility every week, said MSHH Donor Closet President Richard Marin. The organization has provided thousands of people across the region access to necessary medical and mobility equipment and financial aid, Marin said.

“I made the very first delivery with (Brayer), and that was back in 1999,” said MSHH Donor Closet volunteer Gary Turcott. “Up to Granite Falls — I had a trailer and a pickup and we loaded it up with a bunch of equipment … That was just the beginning.”

Bill Brayer (Beck’s Tribute Center)

Bill Brayer (Beck’s Tribute Center)

About 1 million adults live with MS in the United States and it’s more prevalent in the Pacific Northwest than almost anywhere else, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Brayer, the youngest of seven, grew up in Phoenix. He joined the Navy as a young adult but was soon medically discharged for what was later diagnosed as MS.

He began a typing service, where he would meet his future wife, Carol Brayer. Together they raised six kids from previous marriages for about 10 years before deciding to get married.

“Back in those days it wasn’t necessarily accepted that you could live together forever and never get married,” Carol Brayer said Tuesday. “So we finally decided to give it a whirl, and there were many people who were glad to see us do it — including our kids.”

Bill Brayer “was a father, bar none,” his wife said.

The Brayers took the children on annual camping and (often unsuccessful) fishing trips along rivers and lakes in the Northwest. When they became grandparents, they made long drives to see grandkids celebrate milestones in their lives, like graduations and birthdays.

Bill Brayer always did well on his own, despite “a huge amount” of health issues on top of MS, like a heart attack, cancer and blood infections, Carol Brayer said.

“It was just unbelievable,” she said. “Every time he would come out of it, even the doctors would tell me they didn’t expect him to, but there he was again. And he pushed clear through to the end.”

Brayer was always full of energy and fresh ideas, Turcott said.

“I was inspired that a person with that many impediments could keep charging ahead,” Marin said. “It’s an inspiration … he would have times where he’d have to go to the hospital. And he’d get out of the hospital and he’d still be back doing the things he was doing. It’s an attitude, where you’re saying: ‘I want to continue with life and I want to continue to contribute.’”

Turcott and his youngest daughter both live with MS. He said working at the Donor Closet since its inception has been his way of paying it forward. It has also been a source of lifelong friendships.

Richard Marin loads a bed for delivery Tuesday afternoon at the MSHH Donor Closet in Edmonds. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Richard Marin loads a bed for delivery Tuesday afternoon at the MSHH Donor Closet in Edmonds. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Near the front of the Edmonds store, a small wooden shelf is filled with plastic trophies. They’re from annual Edmonds Fourth of July parades, and a testament to the community Brayer built, Turcott said.

“We would have like 15 scooters and get into this parade,” Turcott said. “Roger Oliver would put speakers on the side of the scooters and play John Philip Sousa — the whole crowd would just get going.”

Oliver and Turcott were among Brayer’s right-hand guys. From Brayer’s garage in the late ’90s, the Donor Closet expanded into about a dozen units at a self-storage facility, where they kept thousands of donated items.

Turcott laughed as he recalled trying to open up the storage units on cold winter mornings. The lock would have so much ice on it, he’d have to use a rock to break it open.

“So this is like heaven,” Turcott said, gesturing to the interior of the heated, lit Edmonds store.

Today, there are three Donor Closet locations, in Edmonds, Tacoma and Spokane.

Through the years, the Brayers became well known throughout the Edmonds community.

Bill and Carol Brayer would take the time to stop by your home to say hello or drop off a holiday card, said Ben Goodwin, a neighbor of 15 years.

Living with a chronic disease, or loving someone with a chronic disease, changes your perspective, said Bill’s granddaughter, Hannah Brayer, 23.

There’s a rough sketch of a penguin hanging in Bill Brayer’s office.

“When I was a little bit older, maybe late elementary or middle school … I gave it to him and he called it his happy feet,” Hannah Brayer said. “I think that spoke a lot to the kind of person that he was — at least that I remember — of just really appreciating those little things.”

Every year at the Brayer family Christmas gathering, Bill Brayer gave what could have been his last speech.

“Just as much as we didn’t know if it was going to go last Christmas, he didn’t know either,” Hannah Brayer said. “It wasn’t a surprise, and I think in some ways that has made his passing easier to deal with because we’ve I’ve been preparing since I was a kid, but I think in a lot of ways it’s almost more sad that way, too. I definitely think that we all really treasured those moments with him.”

Family and friends came from as far as California and New York to pay respects at his funeral earlier this month. It spoke to his importance among those living with MS, his family and the local community, Carol Brayer said.

“He was a good man, with a big heart,” she said. “He loved life and he’s going to be so missed.”

Isabella Breda: 425-339-3192; Twitter: @BredaIsabella.

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