Ben Robbins motored his automated wheelchair around First Baptist Church of Garden City’s campus on Saturday. He met with volunteers and a handful of visitors, moving between the auction and rummage sale inside the church and the yard games and car show near the front lawn. At one point, he sat at the end of the blocked off side street, waving in passing cars.
“I’m the meet-and-greet guy,” he said a day earlier, amidst preparations for Saturday's fundraising event for his benefit.
Robbins and his caretaker, Deirdre Foster, said he had spent years volunteering for Miles of Smiles or fundraisers for local community members. After about a month of planning, Robbins and Foster would continue the tradition of giving for Robbins’ sake by throwing The Big Ben Benefit, a day-long fundraiser to help Robbins afford a speciality handicap-accessible Volkswagen Beetle.
Robbins struggles with facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy, a diagnosis that has slowly made it harder for him to move, placing him in a wheelchair for the past several years. He is a bigger guy, tall even when sitting down. He said he ignored his diagnosis for years, staying active with sports and manual labor, until it progressed to a point where he could no longer work.
Today, he does what he can to get out of the house, including bumpily driving his chair around town or down city streets for morning paper routes. He knows everyone in town and visits friends and acquaintance when he can, he said, but is often stuck at home during the winter months. For most of his mobility needs, he relies on Foster.
“There was a period where I was pretty down and out. I do take antidepressant medication because I’ve lost my ability to do so many things. I was a real alpha-male, get-things-done kind of personality when I was younger … I’m not quite that productive anymore, but I still try. And when I can’t do something, it drives me nuts,” Robbins said.
Robbins is unable to take himself to the grocery store, pursue a part-time job or take his young son to school, he said. So when Marcus Horney, an old high school friend and fellow member of the Garden City V-Dub Club, showed off a vintage Volkswagen van at his shop, Robbins jokingly said he wished he could have a VW Beetle he could use. The line gnawed at Horney.
“I could not sleep, could not sleep. And I called him and said, ‘You son of a bitch, I’ve got an idea.’ I said, ‘I think I can get a wheelchair on that car,’” Horney said.
Horney, a technician at Ladd Welding and Machine Service LLC, said he could customize a VW Beetle for $6,000, donating his design and labor but needing money for parts. His plan was to design a track along the outside of the car that would lift Robbins’ wheelchair and store it outside the rear of the car. Robbins, who can stand and walk very short distances, would only have to move to a swiveling drivers seat and the car would take care of the rest. Robbins would be able to control the car with his hand controls, like a motorcycle, Horney said.
Horney said the older cars were sturdy and easier to modify. Plus, they had a soul to them that he had never seen in other cars. It was a project he was glad to provide to an old friend.
“He was good to me in high school … When you’re in high school, you kind of get picked on by some people and he was never that guy. He was always friends with everybody,” Horney said.
Horney has already begun working on the green and white car, which Robbins wants to paint orange, and said it could possibly be completed in the coming months.
He, Robbins and Foster said it would give Robbins the mobility and independence he needed to take control of his life again.
“I’m so excited about it right now … I’ll be able to do certain things without anybody’s help, which I haven’t been able (to do) in a long time,” Robbins said.
Several thousand dollars stood between Robbins and that kind of freedom, and so he and Foster decided to reach out to the community. Foster said dozens of local businesses, organizations and individuals sponsored the event, and local entities like the Garden City police and fire departments, USD 457’s Books on the Bus (B.O.B.), the Finney County Public Library, Finney County Humane Society and Horney’s Volkswagen club came down to offer information on their services and show support. Not all the participating entities knew Robbins personally, but all were happy to show different sides of the community.
“Everybody deserves the right to be able to go where they want to,” said Debra Brungardt of the Finney County Humane Society.
Among a rummage sale, live and silent auction, concession stand and donation booth, the event hosted lawn games, a bounce house, a sidewalk chalk contest and Volkswagen car show, as well as visits from B.O.B., a GCFD fire truck and local ambulance. The library and humane society also handed out information about their organizations at booths on the lawn.
The support leading up to the event had been overwhelming, Foster said. Many businesses had offered her and Robbins discounts to prepare sales or activities, and friends had donated so many items to the silent auction that several had to be bundled into gift baskets. Even Robbins’ son, Dalton, had raised roughly $400 by selling handmade rubber band bracelets for his dad, Foster said.
Despite the enthusiasm, she said, Robbins didn’t meet his goal. The event, held on the last weekend of the summer, was sparsely attended. The turnout was a bit of a letdown, she said, but she was still grateful for those who did come, as well the event’s pack of volunteers.
At the event, Robbins admitted he wished more people were there, but was still happy with the community support that had arrived.
“The camaraderie between the Volkswagen club and everything is just outstanding … It is what it is, and we just have to hope for the best,” he said.
Those interested in donating to Robbins’ car can do so at his GoFundMe page, at www.gofundme.com/handicapable-vehicle-for-big-ben.
Contact Amber Friend at firstname.lastname@example.org.