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Ramp reopens door to life for woman, 104
December 9, 1996
To be outside will be a small rebirth considering how long she's been stuck inside her house on the Muckleshoot Indian Reservation.
Wilbur is 104 years old, possibly the oldest Native American in the state. She uses a wheelchair but hasn't been able to leave her house on her own for years ever since the ramp outside her front door became too warped to use.
Yesterday, four strangers came to her house and built a new ramp. They were members of the Red Feather Development Group, a volunteer organization that repairs and builds homes for elderly Native Americans.
The group learned of Wilbur's problem in a Seattle Times story last week about housing conditions on reservations. The story was part of a five-day series looking into problems with tribal housing across the nation.
In the Muckleshoot tribe, nearly 100 members are on a waiting list for federally financed houses. In addition, many members await much-needed home repairs. Wilbur waited years to get insulation and storm windows installed in her house, and she's been waiting at least five years for a new wheelchair ramp.
"I like pansies. They're my favorite flower," Wilbur said yesterday as she watched volunteers tear out her old ramp and piece together the new one.
The new ramp includes a small porch where she'll be able to talk to neighbors. It's also where she'll put her flower pots.
Rob Young, 35, who runs the Red Feather Development Group out of his Bellevue home, said he and other volunteers "will get a lot more out of this than Ollie Wilbur ever will."
The nonprofit organization, modeled after Habitat for Humanity, gets all its funding from private donors such as Costco co-founder Jeff Brotman and Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard. Eagle Hardware contributed the tools and materials, and Budget Rent-A-Car provided a truck for yesterday's project.
Young said the group focuses on Native-American elderly because they're the most physically vulnerable and often live in the worst housing.
Wilbur's lived in the same house for 35 years but has only had insulation and windows for the past four. An old woodstove provides heat.
The home was jerry-built decades ago from remnants of three small houses. The floors are uneven, the walls mismatched and the ceilings are at different heights.
"This house is like a house of cards," said Wilbur's granddaughter, Lena Chavez, who takes care of Wilbur during the day. "When the wind blows, the whole darn thing shifts and shakes."
Still, after all these years, Wilbur has grown fond of the place.
Wilbur says that for years she's been on and off waiting lists for various things: a new home, repairs, a new ramp. But in the past decade, she had started losing hope.
And what did it matter anyway? Chavez said Wilbur thinks every year will be her last, and the idea of that is not so terrible - living a century-plus is a lot to be thankful for.
Yesterday, Wilbur was given one more little thing to be thankful for. The new ramp, she said, is a great blessing. Now the main thing to wait for and live for is spring.
Copyright © 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.
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