Veterans group wins van in national contest

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Paralyzed veterans who need transportation to medical appointments can turn to the Keystone Paralyzed Veterans of America.

The state chapter, based in Sharpsburg, won a new van equipped to handle wheelchairs in Toyota's 100 Cars for Good national contest for nonprofit groups.

The silver Sienna van is worth close to $60,000, which includes $25,000 worth of modifications such as dropped floors and a wheelchair ramp installed by Keystone Coach Works. The vehicle can accommodate two wheelchair users and two ambulatory passengers in addition to the driver.

Joseph Dornbrock, the chapter's executive director, said the contest for nonprofit organizations was conducted over 100 days. Each day, logos, information and a short promotional video for five finalists were placed on Facebook and the public could vote on their favorite. In the finals, the Keystone chapter competed with four other nonprofits and received 40 percent of the votes to win.

"We're grateful to Toyota and friends we didn't know we had who voted for us," Mr. Dornbrock said.

The chapter received the van at Rohrich Toyota in the South Hills, which will provide equipment maintenance and training for the chapter's drivers. Keystone Coach Works of Bethel Park and Toyota also made additional cash donations to the chapter, which will be used for insurance and fuel.

"We're tracking down paralyzed veterans in Allegheny County who need transportation to medical appointments," Mr. Dornbrock said. "It's a challenge reaching them, and some need to be encouraged to use services available."

The van was on display Friday during an open house at the state chapter's headquarters, 1113 Main St., across from the Sharpsburg Post Office. The Keystone chapter has 290 paralyzed veteran members and 80 nonparalyzed associate members across the state.

Attending was the chapter's past president, Bill Schenker, 63, of McCandless, who has had multiple sclerosis since he was 21 and was a member of the Air Force serving in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. He now uses a wheelchair.

"I can't begin to say how much the Keystone chapter has helped. It referred me to services and provides socialization," he said. "I lead a normal life, thanks to my wife, Lois." He and his wife have three children.

Volunteer coordinator Agnes Strang of Canonsburg oversees 53 volunteers. Some recently distributed Easter bags filled with toiletries to patients at the Veterans Affairs H.J. Heinz campus in O'Hara.

Her husband, Tom, who has used a wheelchair for 25 years as a result of a fall, is membership officer and associate sports director for the chapter. He also visits patients at the hospital two days a week to offer moral support, she said.

Chapter vice president Jim Riemer of Butler served as a storekeeper on a guided missile destroyer during his four-year stint in the Navy from 1972-76. He came out of the service without a scratch but injured his spine after falling from a roof in 1985, which left him a quadriplegic. He has some sensation in his arms and joined the chapter to bowl.

"At first, I was depressed and couldn't do anything, but I did therapy and now I can drive a specially equipped van. I'm vice president and oversee the programs, visit vets in hospitals and monitor their care," he said.

Mr. Riemer plans to participate in bowling and slalom at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in July in Tampa, Fla. Nineteen members of the chapter will attend the games, which attract about 600 veterans.

Keystone Paralyzed Veterans of America, founded in 1960, is one of 34 chartered chapters of Paralyzed Veterans of America, which has 20,000 members. The nonprofit relies on contributions from the public to sustain its mission of improving the quality of life of paralyzed veterans. The board of directors is made up of paralyzed veterans. The chapter offers monitoring and advocacy of veterans' health care, legal representation before the Department of Veterans Affairs, recreational opportunities and socialization.

"We make a serious effort to get veterans out and get active and educate people about accessibility," Mr. Dornbrock said.

Among the upcoming events are the Boston Trail Marathon and 5K Run/Walk on Saturday in McKeesport, which has been opened to wheelchairs; a Veterans Art Festival May 22 at the VA H.J. Heinz campus, Building 71; and the 10th Annual Keystone Paralyzed Veterans of America and Greene County Bassmasters Fishing Tournament on June 16 in West Brownsville.

For information or to donate to Keystone Paralyzed Veterans of America: 412-781-2474 or 1-800-775-9323.


Virginia Miller, freelance writer: First Published April 18, 2013 9:45 AM


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