Former high school teacher building wheelchair ramps for people in need

Chicago's Very Own

CHICAGO — They call him the “Ramp Man.” For the past two decades Paul Bartholomae, a former high school teacher, has been constructing wheelchair ramps for Des Plaines residents in need.  His work along with the support of a local organization and enthusiastic students have allowed many to continue living independently.

Last November, Steven Moraitis and his mother didn’t know how they’d get him in and out of his Des Plaines home once he returned from a rehab facility — in stepped in Bartholomae to the rescue.

Moraitis’ mother was worried how she would get her son out if there was a fire. Bartholomae said they were taking him out with a 12-foot extendable scaffolding, which is step, which was a concern.

With a tight window of one week in between Moraitis’ doctor appointments, Bartholomae and his team got to work piecing together a 48-foot aluminum wheelchair ramp.  

“We build all the sections at the warehouse and then we brought them out here put the legs up and put it in position,” he said.

Bartholomae said he picked up carpentry skills as a young man helping his brother build a house. 

“When you learn that no one sits and teaches you, you just have to pay attention to things,” he said.

These days he spends his time teaching a careers class at Maryville Academy’s Jen School. Part of the curriculum is enlisting his students to volunteer and help build wheelchair ramps for disabled and elderly people.   

“This one we did it, it worked out quite well, it’s actually amazing how well the students do on a project like this,” Bartholomae said.

Rosemary Argus takes the orders for the projects. She’s the executive director of the Des Plaines Community Foundation where she runs a “Neighbors Helping Neighbors” program. The mission is to help people live independently. 

“We had more people calling the hotline, we had people call for a wheelchair ramp, they could not afford it, they were stuck in their homes,” she said.

It costs anywhere from $6,000 to $8,000 to build just one ramp. The foundation pays for the materials and volunteers, like Bartholomae, put them together. He’s built about 56 ramps over the years and has become the foundation’s go-to guy. 

“This week we had Paul and the boys take down a shed from a garage and they have done other things, but he does so many ramps that I am now calling him my ramp man,” Argus said.

Construction can take the volunteers anywhere from six weeks for an aluminum ramp to several months for a wooden one. He said it’s rewarding when his students take pride in their work and witness the positive impact they leave with the community.   

“I used to tell the kids you know you are conceivably saving peoples’ lives because if they had a fire in this house right now, there is no way they could get out with a ramp they are safe,” Bartholomae said.

And it seems the Neighbors Helping Neighbors program benefits everyone involved.   

“It’s a winning program because we help the person in Des Plaines with a wheelchair ramp and the boys from Jen School learn some carpentry, some putting together how to work on a crew. So it’s kind of a winning program for both of us,” Argus said.

The ramp also brings much needed safety and security. Moraitis and his motherare forever grateful to Bartholomae and his students for their time and effort.

“I can say thank you a hundred times and it still doesn’t express how grateful I am that they all have gotten this for me — for him,” Beth Ulloa said.

For more information about the Des Plaines Community Foundation visit desplainescommunityfoundation.org

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