Grand Rapids is on a roll to set another Guinness World Record. This time, its focus is on raising awareness of accessibility for differently-abled people.
Come Roll with Us is a challenge to get more than 193 people in wheelchairs to do a one-minute roll on May 16, 2015 at the IRA Civic Center. Following the mission of MyrnaLee Mania, inspired by Grand Rapids resident Myrna Peterson, this event has grown from a story of tragedy to that of perseverance, triumph, kindness and a community that is coming together to help neighbors in wheelchairs.
While the fun part is the challenge of breaking the record, the heart of the event is to start a movement to support neighbors who are differently-abled, to make the community wheelchair-friendly and to raise awareness of the issues and barriers that people in wheelchairs face every day.
The two people leading the charge are Peterson and Lee Isaacs. By an unfortunate twist of fate, both were victims of separate accidents that occurred on the same day on June 21, 1995, within a half a mile of each other. Doctors told them they would never walk again. They’ve endured dozens of surgeries, painful infections and even survived flat-lining. After two decades of working to build their lives back, Peterson and Isaacs want to draw attention to changes that need to be made to help wheelchair users have the independence that most of us take for granted.
“It’s compliance versus accessibility,” said Peterson, whose warm spirit and strong determination have made her a leader among the community and friend to many. “The issue is you can be compliant but not necessarily accessible.”
Peterson and Isaacs spoke about some of the issues they deal with on a daily basis such as doorway thresholds that are too elevated for their chairs or sidewalk ramps that were constructed at an angle leading right into traffic lanes. Painting for handicapped parking spots is often faded or covered in snow. Elevator buttons are too high to reach. Accessible entrances to government buildings that are locked early don’t allow for access during late meetings or voting hours. Park system trails are too often not clear enough for wheelchairs. Most aren’t paved, keeping people with disabilities from enjoying many of our natural wonders.
“Where there’s a will there’s a way,” said an optimistic Isaacs. But for someone who has always found a connection with the outdoors it’s frustrating when he cannot visit places like the Lost 40 Forest or when the wheels of his chair get stuck in the cracks of fishing piers.
“If you can’t get into a place, you don’t go there,” Isaacs said.
Isaacs uses a chair he describes as a “piece of steel” with a footrest that’s “like a bulldozer.” Peterson’s chair weighs 350 pounds and has two regular-sized car batteries in it — it cost $14,000. “You can’t tell me that this should be more expensive than a used car but that’s how it works,” said Peterson.
Like others like themselves who rely on expensive and heavy equipment such as this, the challenges are many. Peterson and Isaacs want to increase understanding of the issues they face and also encourage people like themselves to have a voice. They hope an event like Come Roll with Us will draw hundreds to recognize how many people in this community and beyond also face mobility issues everyday —neighbors, friends, family members.
Supporters are also planning to help Peterson and Isaacs in return for their efforts. As part of the event, they hope to raise funds to replace Peterson’s handicapped vehicle which lacks the adaptive technology to allow her to drive and Isaac’s 30-plus-year old accessible van which is no longer repairable and needs to be replaced.
“The hope is this will spread beyond Itasca County as far as transportation and accessibility,” said event organizer Lisa Arnold. “We’d like to help these two people then go beyond. Imagine what Myrna could do if she had a van — she could go to the legislature!”
Come Roll With Us starts at the IRA Civic Center in Grand Rapids on Saturday, May 16, with a 1-2:45 wheelchair record check-in (pre-registration is required online at www.myrnaleemania.com or by calling 218-398-2649). The Break Guinness Book of World Record Wheelchair Roll is at 3 p.m., followed by a pork tenderloin dinner (cost $10), wheelchair basketball exhibition, bean bag toss tournament, vendors, festivities, beer garden, silent auction and raffles from 4-9 p.m. People of all abilities are welcome.
To top everything off, adding even more excitement for this challenge and its mission, organizers and supporters are hoping to gain the attention of Ellen DeGeneres of the popular Ellen Show.
“We are asking you to do three things: Spread the word about MyrnaLee Mania, like us on Facebook and contact Ellen on our behalf (www.ellentv.com/beon-the-show/10/),” said Arnold. “Please help us show Ellen the real Minnesota Nice and extend the Roll Challenge.
“The power of the people sending our mission viral will create true change. Other communities have started movements. Why can’t ours?”
For more information about the event and this movement, visit www.myrnaleemania.com
(This article is reprinted with permission of the Grand Rapids Herald-Review.)