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Community gives Emily a new start

Emily de Boer with mom Charmis de Boer and Brian Williams, president of Ashton Service Group, at the construction site of the de Boer family home.  - Matthew Hoekstra photo
Emily de Boer with mom Charmis de Boer and Brian Williams, president of Ashton Service Group, at the construction site of the de Boer family home.
— image credit: Matthew Hoekstra photo

It started small as most things do, but having lunch with the Man in Motion quickly changed that.

As Brian Williams sat across from Rick Hansen—the man who wheeled around the world raising money, awareness and hope for people with spinal cord injuries—he heard the story of Emily de Boer. Emily, a bright, athletic 12-year-old Steveston girl, had recently lost the use of her legs following a surgery that went wrong. On Feb. 14, 2011, an attempt to correct a spine curvature left her a paraplegic.

Emily needed a new bathroom—something right up the alley of Williams’ Richmond-based company, Ashton Service Group. But Williams and a growing army of volunteers decided to do one better: build the family an entirely new house.

‘We needed to start over’

During a visit home from the hospital last year, the de Boer family was hit with the understanding their newly-renovated Steveston house wouldn’t be their home for much longer. It wasn’t accessible, and alterations would be too costly.

Dad Grant carried Emily upstairs into the living room, where the family cat found a place to rest in a familiar lap. But when the cat darted down the hall the family fell silent.

“It was a very sad moment because she couldn’t run after the cat,” said mom Charmis. “That night she said to (us), ‘I don’t think I can live here.’ We needed to start over.”

They did, selling the home and buying a fixer-upper nearby. An architect drafted plans for another renovation.

Meanwhile, Williams and his wife Julie arranged to have dinner with Emily’s parents to hear the whole story. The next day, Williams knocked on the door of the de Boer family’s “new” house. What he saw was an old two-storey dwelling that needed a lot of work. It had a pool—Emily took up swimming again—but it wasn’t heated. And without an elevator, Emily was trapped downstairs.

A caring team

Williams, a father of three, was moved by Emily’s story, and shared it the next day over breakfast with a supplier, who immediately offered to donate bathroom fixtures. That had Williams thinking.

He approached his friend and contractor Ken Johnson. The pair had previously completed a similar renovation project for a Richmond firefighter paralyzed from a highway accident. Johnson didn’t hesitate to help again.

Renovation costs were tallied and the pair approached the de Boer family a few weeks later with more than just sketches for a bathroom.

“I think we should knock it over,” Williams told them. “Go find an apartment or house close-by and give us a year.”

Williams and his wife formed the Ashton Caring Team—focused on community involvement, volunteerism and corporate responsibility. The concepts weren’t new to Ashton, but the scale of the project led the company to organize its efforts under one umbrella.

Things started moving quickly. Williams started talking to friends and associates and offers to help began to pour in: lumber, plywood, roofing materials, windows, electrical supplies, kitchen cabinets, labour. So far 30 organizations or individuals are on board to help with what’s now being called “Project Emily.”

“The outpouring so far has been amazing,” said Williams. “Someone yesterday sent me a very large cheque. I couldn’t even phone him because I was so blown away by it… There’s a lot of compassion here.”

Wall of Giving

The de Boer house on Springhill Crescent—the one the family had originally planned to renovate—was flatted Dec. 15. Planned is a new 3,400-square-foot home with wheelchair accessibility at the top of the architect’s list.

Williams said the house is scheduled to be finished by late 2013—and give Emily some of her life back. Light switches will be within reach for Emily, and she’ll be able to open the front door, go upstairs in an elevator, make her own meals, take showers and access a heated, barrier-free pool outside.

Williams said his goal is to build the $500,000 house with the least amount of money from the de Boer family. His hope is to have the entire cost covered to help the family cope with future expenses.

A four-by-eight-foot sign is scheduled to be installed this week at the construction site to recognize donors. It will be called “Emily’s Wall of Giving.” And as the site is prepared for a new foundation, Project Emily is still seeking help from the community. Cash donations are needed, as is volunteer labour. A fundraiser is planned for the new year and a website (ashtoncaringteam.org) has been set up to co-ordinate donations.

“If everybody just gives a little, we can really model ourselves off the Free the Children motto, ‘From me to we,’ really quick,” said Williams, still amazed at how the project has come together so quickly. “I don’t go to church on Sunday, but I do figure that I’ve been pretty blessed somehow. It’s amazing how fortunate we’ve been.”

The de Boer family is now temporarily living in an apartment. Mom Charmis admits to nervous moments, especially seeing the flattened landscape where their house once stood, but said it warms her heart thinking of the support her family has—even from strangers like Brian Williams.

“He’s an angel, he really has no reason to be doing this. He just is.”

Making an impact

Williams’ company Ashton Service Group is one of the founders of the Caring Companies Program, a joint community initiative with Volunteer Richmond Information Services and the Richmond Chamber of Commerce.

The program brings together like-minded businesses wanting to make an impact in the community, and provides the tools, resources and connections to make it happen.

Volunteer Richmond’s executive director  Elizabeth Specht said Ashton’s commitment to the community—both the company and employees—is “awe-inspiring.”

“It’s just so obvious that Brian through his leadership, and now throughout his staff has created a culture of caring,” she said.  “The de Boer project is the ultimate of culture of caring. It’s phenomenal what Brian and others are committed to and are bringing others along to do with them.”

How to help

•Visit ashtoncaringteam.org to learn more about Project Emily and how to help. Trades and skills are needed, along with financial donations and general volunteers.

•For more information about the Richmond Caring Companies Program (third series begins in January) call 604-279-7020 or e-mail info@volunteerrichmond.ca.

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