One day last winter, Verne Rider stopped by the two-story house with its wheelchair ramp and Stars and Stripes flying from a pole, and presented a hard-to-refuse offer to its homeowners.
Rider, a military and veterans affairs case worker, had received a call from a colleague saying that the owner of Closets by Design in Exton was looking to donate a makeover for a local disabled veteran.
Immediately, Rider thought, How about Jim McGuire?
Rider has known the decorated Vietnam War vet since 2005, when he worked on McGuire’s behalf to replace his Purple Heart and Air Medal, stolen shortly after McGuire returned home from the war in 1968.
At first, McGuire, 66, and his wife Lorraine, 61, didn’t understand why someone wanted to transform space in their home–for the price of nothing. The couple hadn’t asked for help, but Charles Waterman, Closets by Design owner for the last nine years, wanted to do just that and “give back to the community.”
“After they explained everything to me, I was all for having new closets where the clothes would be easier to reach,” said McGuire while sitting in his motorized scooter, his Dalmatian Sparky–the name a salute to his two sons, both of whom have been firefighters–resting near his feet. “As much as I can, I try to do things for myself.”
McGuire had been in Vietnam six months when his platoon was ambushed while it was preparing a landing zone. He was shot in the right leg as he tried to save the life of another soldier.
Since then, McGuire has suffered heart disease, diabetes, and prostate cancer–all documented effects of Agent Orange exposure. “I remember the mist landing on my arms,” said McGuire, who also served as a Dustoff medevac helicopter crew member, evacuating wounded soldiers under fire. In 2010, McGuire suffered two strokes, causing paralysis on his left side.
After the war, McGuire worked as a Philadelphia police dispatcher and as a painter for the city prison system and recreation department.
“This is a guy who has given a tremendous amount of public service to his country,” said Rider, 66, also a Vietnam veteran who works in the Bucks County office of Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R., PA.).
So in June, a team of workers descended for two days on McGuire’s home on a leafy street in Northeast Philadelphia, and got to work. They retrofitted the master bedroom and hall linen closets, and built a computer workstation. On the second level, within the expansive recreation room, the contractors redesigned a roomy walk-in wardrobe area, where the couple can now store hardly-used articles.
McGuire and his wife moved into their home in 1972 and like nearly 90 percent of seniors in their sixties, according to a 2011 AARP study, they wish to “age in place”–to stay put in their current home.
For most people, that would mean making certain areas of their house more accessible and creating systems to avoid too much climbing, maneuvering, bending. For a client with dexterity and mobility challenges like McGuire’s, additional modifications were considered.
“We added products that would make things more accessible for Jim and reduce excessive reaching,” said Closets by Design senior designer Cay Evans, of the $8,000 makeover. “And we also took into consideration some separate storage needs for his wife.”
The first step was removing the lone pole in the master bedroom’s closet and replacing it with multiple hanging bars, including a center pull-down rod. McGuire can now remain seated in his wheelchair and bring his shirts and pants within reach.
Stylish white cubbies were installed, providing plenty of storage for sweaters, and the scoop-handle fronts on the built-in drawers are easier for McGuire to grip.
Previously, a clothes tree often toppled from the weight of too many coats and hats, and McGuire had difficulty reaching the upper hooks. Now, outerwear is easily accessible in a locker with waist-high brass pegs and soft-edged shelves.
The hall closet was once a mishmash of medicine bottles, bath towels and table linens. The space was repurposed with more white cubbies and under-mount metal baskets, holding objects front and center. McGuire’s medicines have been organized in drop-down drawers.
McGuire says he pays bills and orders his medications online. He also likes to stay connected on Facebook with his post-traumatic stress disorder groups and friends from his days as a dancer on American Bandstand. (He was 16 then, three years before he was drafted into the Army.) Taking note, the crew constructed a raised office system along a wall in the master bedroom, where McGuire can easily slide his wheelchair under a worktable that holds his computer. Above, a shelf now holds his TV.
“The desk is really nice,” said Lorraine. “Before, Jim was always working at the kitchen table, and the whole area was always a mess.”
The light and airy theme extends into the upstairs 9-by-6-foot closet. Before the makeover, the space had piles of clothing on top of Christmas ornaments. The custom-designed space was revamped into an organized depository for out-of-season coats and decorations, as well as bulky items like suitcases and extra pillows for when the grandchildren visit.
McGuire calls the redesigned space “wonderful.”
“Everything is so easy now. I never thought redoing closets would change my life.”
By Catherine Laughlin
Originally posted in For The Inquirer | July 27, 2013