Their introduction came seven years ago. Michael Hartwell, an auto collision technology instructor at Atlantic Technical College, and his students replaced a set of tires on the van of the school’s information management specialist, Kristy Bak. He noticed the disabled parking permit on the window.
Bak’s son, Andrew, was diagnosed with schizencephaly at birth, a rare condition that has left him with seizures and requires him to use a wheelchair. As Hartwell got to know Bak and her family better, he realized that lifting Andrew in and out of the chair and vehicle multiple times a day would become increasingly difficult as her son grew. “She had to raise that boy, and get him into the van, and put the wheelchair in the back of the van. And, believe me, that was no light wheelchair,” Hartwell says.
He felt inspired to find a solution. It took six months of searching and the help of fellow ATC alumnus Tony Buziuk, owner of Keystone Fleet Service in Pennsylvania, to locate a replacement van. The school contributed materials, and, over the next five months, Hartwell and his students modified the vehicle to make it wheelchair-accessible—with a motorized ramp and customized chair. The big reveal came the day before Bak’s Nov. 17 birthday.
“I had 37 students line up in two rows going through the shop,” Hartwell says. “When we got out front, I unveiled the van and it had a big ‘Happy Birthday’ bow.”
Bak was moved beyond words. In a thank-you letter, she wrote that the gift removed considerable guilt, worry and fear of when she physically could no longer carry her child.
“It’s made everything so much easier,” Bak says. “Before it was like contemplating, ‘Can I really do this?’ or ‘How’s the weather today?’ or ‘How long is it going to take?’ ”
Hartwell also covered the vehicle registration and insurance for the first year. Providing a reliable solution and seeing the joy it has brought is a reward itself. “It’s amazing, the stress relief she has with this van,” Hartwell says.
The new van was a dream come true for Bak. “ ‘Someday. Maybe someday.’ That’s what you always tell yourself,” Bak says of her thoughts before she received the gift.
With the help of Hartwell and the Atlantic Technical community, that someday finally arrived.