A good way to get Jerry Otis to do something is to tell him he can’t do it.
In 1985, Otis, a carpenter in a door factory, became disabled.
“It kind of made me mad for somebody to tell me I’d never work again,” he said.
Otis proved them wrong and volunteered for a nonprofit agency in Snohomish County building wheelchair ramps at people’s homes.
Then somebody told Otis he couldn’t build them outside Snohomish County. That didn’t stop him, either.
In 1999, the Mountlake Terrace resident started his own organization, the Regional Access Mobility Program, or RAMP, and expanded his ramp-building to homes in Island, King, Pierce, Skagit and Whatcom counties, as well as Snohomish County.
Recently, Otis’ can’t-stop-him attitude earned him the 2004 Governor’s Trophy from Gov. Gary Locke and the Washington State Committee on Disabilities Issues and Employment for his work with RAMP.
In recognition of the state award, Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon proclaimed Dec. 22 Jerry Otis Day in the county and hosted a reception in his honor.
Now, there’s no one telling Otis he “can’t.” But he’s still motivated by the looks on people’s faces when he’s done something that will make a difference in their lives.
“We allow people the freedom to live in the home they want to live in,” he said.
Otis, 59, became partially paralyzed on his left side after undergoing 19 operations to try to alleviate fluid on his brain. His ordeal began when he was knocked out in a football game in 1963. Though his condition was controlled with a shunt until the early 1980s, Otis needed further medical help after that.
He uses a wheelchair part of the time but is able to walk – and work – using a crutch. He spends some time directing the volunteers who help him with each job. He spends a lot of time sawing and hammering as well.
“I can do it all,” he said, noting that he just built a ramp in Monroe by himself. “I just have to find a different way of doing it.”
In November, Otis helped build a ramp for Vera Lord of Snohomish, who recently had a series of strokes brought on by cancer.
“He’s amazing to watch work,” said Everett Greenhalgh, Lord’s son-in-law, who worked with Otis on the job. “We were told, ‘If you see Jerry fall down, he’s OK. He’ll let you know if he needs help,’” Greenhalgh said.
Otis’ ability to work is inspiring, said Lorraine Cronk, one of the four board members for RAMP.
“He has a very high level of dedication and a high level of ethics,” she said.
For instance, a young woman sentenced to community service was going to help Otis on a ramp job. When she showed up three hours late, Otis said, “Forget it.”
“I run this job like it was paid carpenter work,” he said.
Otis has seen lots of happy endings, though. He proudly recounts how a Boy Scout helped on ramps to earn his Eagle Scout badge, and how an entry-level carpenter earned enough hours to get certified. And he loves to tell stories of happy ramp customers. One such customer is Greenhalgh.
“I tried all over creation to get somebody to come out and build us a ramp,” Greenhalgh said. “It’s really helped a lot just getting her in and out,” he said of his mother-in-law.
Otis built more than 30 ramps in the past year, with more than 50 requests received. He works with whatever volunteers he can round up. The program is funded by contributions from the carpenters and other unions, from churches and from individuals, and receives discounts from BMC West Lumber of Everett. The materials for a ramp can cost up to $1,500, Cronk said, so more funding is always needed.
Ramp recipients are asked to pay for the materials, but no one is turned away for lack of ability to pay, Otis said.
“Our word of choice is ‘will,’” he said.
For more information on the Regional Access Mobility Program, call 425-220-5452 or go to www.nw-ramp.org.
Bill Sheets is a reporter for the Herald in Everett.