Nfld. & Labrador

Friends of Joel raise $56K for boy's wheelchair-accessible van

More than 50 different fundraisers raised money for nine-year-old Joel Stride's new accessible van — a vehicle that has an "amazing impact."

More than 50 fundraisers so far for the Grand Falls-Windsor family

Erica Billings loads Joel, 9, into his new vehicle at her home in Grand Falls-Windsor. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

Finally, it's as simple as a switch. 

After a seven-month fundraising campaign — which saw dozens of different groups pitch in to help — nine-year-old Joel Stride's new accessible van has arrived in Grand Falls-Windsor.

The red Dodge Grand Caravan comes equipped with a powered wheelchair ramp; all his mom, Erica Billings, has to do is open the passenger door, bring down the ramp, and strap Joel up inside.

"It's an amazing impact on our lives," Billings said.

Joel Stride sits, buckled in, inside his new wheelchair-accessible van. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

"It certainly means that Joel will be able to keep up, I'll say, with social activities. Get to enjoy the outdoors as he does more often, get to go to the trail more, get to go on the swing more often."

The van arrived Aug. 16, following a series of community fundraisers — a charity yoga class, a quilt raffle, a donation from the TV Bingo — that raised about $56,000.

As we've hoped all along … Joel is getting bigger and has been getting bigger.- Erica Billings

"It was just amazing. We were just so overwhelmed by the excitement and the relief of having the van," Billings said.

"It was just so wonderful to just be able to deploy the ramp and roll him in and hook him up and stow it away and get aboard and go.

"The difference in the amount of lifting and the speed to getting out the door and everything, it's just overwhelming."

A world of difference

Joel Stride was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when he was just one — it's been a part of his and his mom's life since he was a baby.

Now, at nine, and as Joel keeps growing, things that used to be a little bit easier have become more taxing.

"As we've hoped all along … Joel is getting bigger and has been getting bigger," Billings said.

"And as he weighs heavier and heavier, you could see that, you know, eventually maybe some of his things we wouldn't get to, because of just being tired and not having the energy."

Billings says Joel likes spending time at the community garden in Grand Falls-Windsor, where his family helps him look after a plot. (Erica Billings/Facebook)

Before the van, a simple trip to the park, or to Joel's plot in the community garden, would require four lifts: in and out each way. Now, the BraunAbility-branded lift does the work.

Its arrival came at a perfect time.

"Even though I know that Joel's life will be different than most children his age, I'd still like for him to have the same experiences and things, so it would have been disheartening to get to a point where I couldn't keep up," Billings said, fighting back tears.

"I've kind of tried to make sure that I keep myself strong because he needs me to be strong, and as he grows, hopefully I will continue to be strong enough for him. But definitely that would be disheartening to, you know, not be able to do that for him."

Billings says Joel loves to read, watch TV and go to the park. Joel was born 14 weeks premature and was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when he was a year old. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

Joel splits time between his mom and dad, and also spends time with his grandparents — and the van will go wherever he needs it.

It can help him with lots of little things that mean a big deal for a young boy.

"A trip to Walmart to get something, Joel can more often go inside and be a part of that, and if he had something that he wanted to buy he can actually do the interaction with the cashier," Billings said. "Regular things for development."

Joel's new van comes equipped with a BraunAbility-branded lift, which protracts and retracts with the push of a button. A grant from Newfoundland and Labrador's Department of Children, Seniors and Social Development paid for the installation of the lift. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

A community effort

The fundraising started inside the walls of the Exploits Valley Community Coalition, where Billings works.

After spending a day with Joel, Billings's coworker Tracey Porter suggested to her office that they pitch in and help.

"Porter had a vision of getting Erica this van after she saw the struggle of trying to get Joel in and out of the car seat and the van," said Lori Hennessey, one of the people who stepped up to help lead the group.

Lori Hennessey helped organize fundraising efforts by the Friends of Joel group. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

In January, a Facebook group was created. Hennessey said donations started pouring in not long after.

"Our intent was, in the beginning, that the group and the committee would be doing the fundraisers.… That's what the initial meetings were about," she said.

"Then all of a sudden, people are messaging individuals that are on the committee saying, 'I want to do this.'"

Hennesy said that by her count, there were 57 separate fundraisers for Joel and his van.

"When people got to see Erica and Joel and just see what beautiful spirits and people that they are, then I think everyone just wanted to be involved."

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About the Author

Garrett Barry

Journalist

Garrett Barry is a CBC reporter based in Gander.