Thomas Uranga

Allegheny College Phi Kappa Psi members Thomas Uranga (left) of Los Angeles cuts a board for a ramp while Brandon Bolling of Erie removes staples from the ends during Make A Difference Day on Saturday morning.

Sandra Ritchie has been climbing the steps in front of her Water Street home since moving there with her family as a teenager in 1960, shortly after the devastating flood of 1959 forced them to relocate.

There’s just four of them, but they’re steeper than you might think and recently they’ve become more of a challenge than they used to be for the 73-year-old.

Ritchie began using a cane occasionally after a car accident in 2007 and over the past few years has been using one full time. She had her left knee replaced a few years ago and probably needs surgery on her increasingly painful right knee in the near future. She still likes to get out of the house, but to get to her Ford Explorer with its two custom-installed side steps on the running board, she has to negotiate those four steps, and the thought of doing so has begun to keep her inside more than she would like.

Despite her system — she plants her cane carefully, uses the banister, takes one step at a time — she already knows what it feels like to careen down the steps to the concrete sidewalk below.

“I was going down the steps and I got almost down near to the end of the banister,” she recalled from her front porch Saturday. “The cane went out — I went out.”

“I mean, I went all the way out,” she added.

Ritchie was not seriously injured in the fall and can even joke about it now — “It was like that commercial, ‘I have fallen and I can’t get up,’” she said — but it didn’t seem funny at the time. Sprawled on her back, she scanned the empty street in front of her house, seeing none of her neighbors’ cars. Luckily she had her cellphone and was able to maneuver herself back to the steps so that she was sitting up by the time the police arrived and helped her to her feet.

Since then, Ritchie has found herself skipping events like the Meadville Area Senior High Class of 1963 “Blue Jean Supper” reunion dinner that took place without her on Friday.

“I don’t want to have to come up those steps,” she explained. “The first one down there — the first one coming up the steps is the hardest.”

As Ritchie gestured toward it with her cane, only part of the offending step could be seen. Half of it was covered by the ramp that Don Schmalzried and more than half a dozen members of Allegheny College’s Phi Kappa Psi fraternity were installing as part of the 26th annual Make A Difference Day.

Coordinated through United Way of Western Crawford County, the event drew 740 volunteers who participated in 85 projects. Ranging from leaf raking and general yard maintenance to roof tarring and constructing accessibility ramps like Ritchie’s, the projects stretched from Cochranton to Espyville and up to Linesville and Conneautville as well. While most were completed Saturday, some take significantly more time and, despite the event’s name, the entire operation requires weeks and weeks of logistics of preparation and organization, according to Marisa Lines, executive director of the local branch of the United Way.

Lines and her team of volunteer project supervisors visit each proposed project site, evaluating them for feasibility, supply needs and safety concerns.

By the time Schmalzried arrived at Ritchie’s home early Saturday, he had already spent time there, not just to assess the scope of the project, but to get to know Ritchie as well.

“I like to get to know people I’m doing the work for,” the owner of Meadville Overhead Door Co. said of his visit to Ritchie’s home about a month ago. “I love being able to help people in this way.”

Behind him, spread out across Ritchie’s front yard, that “way” was evident: Busy volunteers clustered at the back of Schmalzried’s oversized van in the driveway, where sawhorses and a chop saw were set up, others were bent over the growing ramp in front of the steps to the green-roofed porch and still others could be heard from the tops of ladders around the back of the house where they were checking Rithcie’s gutters.

Some, like Allegheny sophomore Thomas Uranga, who was operating the saw, came into the project with helpful skills. The Los Angeles native is the son of a carpenter and while he was participating in Make A Difference Day for the first time, he said he had worked on similar projects in the past.

“I find this to be fun, doing this every once in a while — building stuff,” Uranga said of the project.

Nearby, Uranga’s fraternity brother Brandon Bolling, 20, of Erie held a 4-by-4 support post as Schmalzried attached a joist. The sophomore said he was learning a lot on the project and was enjoying the opportunity to contribute to the community.

“A bunch of us getting together and doing a bunch of this community work, I don’t know, it just brings us even closer, all having fun,” Bolling said. A second later, he smirked and called his explanation a “corny answer” — but he didn’t change it.

Beside him, the ramp was taking shape as Schmalzried prepared to begin the 90 degree turn that would extend the structure from the steps to Ritchie’s driveway.

“One thing I tell the guys is, your work is your signature,” Schmalzried said. “You can either have a good one or a bad — take your pick. You want people to think of you in a good way, so you try to do as good a job as you can, doesn’t matter what job you’re doing.”

The volunteer crew had not yet completed their “signature,” but from Ritchey’s perspective on the porch above them, the result looked to be headed in the right direction.

“This is such a blessing,” she said. “These young people are just a godsend.” 

Mike Crowley can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at mcrowley@meadvilletribune.com.

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