Heroes Among Us

Eugene Westerhouse Builds Wheelchair Ramps for Disabled People

02/13/2014 at 02:00 PM EST

Eugene Westerhouse Builds Wheelchair Ramps for Disabled People
Eugene Westerhouse
Courtesy Bill VandeBerghe
Eugene "Westie" Westerhouse takes humility to a whole new level.

Ask the 87-year-old Eudora, Kan., resident about his good deeds and he'll start talking about wood and tape measures and four-by-fours.

When pressed about his good deeds, he says, "I was just looking for something to do."

But to many Westerhouse is a godsend, having volunteered his time and still-significant muscle designing and building free wheelchair ramps for more than 300 people with special needs for nearly four decades.

"Westie is known to almost everybody within a 100-mile radius of here," says friend and wheelchair ramp co-builder Bill VanDeBerghe, who leads the Kingdom Builders ministry of the Eudora United Methodist Church, the umbrella for Westerhouse's charitable works.

"He's extremely embarrassed by any attention," says VanDeBerghe "but Westie is a remarkable man and quite a leader."

She should know.

Westie built a ramp for her husband, Gary, 62, after he suffered a serious stroke last June.

Eugene Westerhouse Builds Wheelchair Ramps for Disabled People | Heroes Among Us, Good Deeds, Real People Stories, Real Heroes

Westerhouse's work

Courtesy Bill VandeBerghe

"Westie is our superhero!" she says.

Westerhouse, a former rural postal carrier who lives with his wife of 65 years, Dottie, on the farm homesteaded by his great-great-grandparents, built his first wheelchair ramp in 1978 when contacted by a church bishop with a parishioner in need.

"I took time off from carrying mail and traveled about 110 miles to go help an old gentleman who needed a ramp so he could get to the doctor," Westerhouse says. "And it just kind of grew from there."

Westerhouse retired from the postal service in 1993 and since then estimates he and his crew of fellow church members have built about 14 ramps a year.

"The one I'm building right now is for a lady who is handicapped and will never be out of her wheelchair," Westerhouse says.

"And I've built two now in the last few months for children," he says. "It's great to be able to help these young people."

Those in need learn about Westerhouse's ramps in a variety of ways – word of mouth, through the church and, more recently, from a feature article in the local newspaper ("Let me send you a copy," Westie offers).

For Deb and Gary Jennings of Lawrence, Kan., the Kingdom Builders came to them after a call from Deb's mom.

"I was in shock and didn't know what to do or what our needs might be," says Deb, 57, of Gary's stroke.

Eugene Westerhouse Builds Wheelchair Ramps for Disabled People | Heroes Among Us, Good Deeds, Real People Stories, Real Heroes

Eugene Westerhouse with Gary and Deb Jennings

Courtesy Bill VandeBerghe

"I had assumed my husband would be walking out of the hospital," she says. "But when that couldn't happen, Westie and Bill calmed me down and led me into the world of wheelchairs and wheelchair ramps."

Westerhouse constructs each ramp in sections inside his home workshop, with the average cost in materials between $700 and $800.

These materials are often paid for through church funds or through grants from local health agencies. All labor is donated, with a crew of up to a dozen volunteers installing home ramps under Westerhouse's guidance.

"It's remarkable," says VanDeBerghe. "Westie is 87 and the vast majority – in fact everyone – we're building for are people much younger than he is.

"He has this incredible stamina we are all amazed by," he says. "Building the ramps can be very tiring, but Westie is right there in the middle of the work."

"I had no idea how much our world would change once we had the wheelchair ramp," says Deb Jennings.

"We call our ramp 'The Freedom Ramp,' " she says. "And I can't say enough good about Westie. He started the ball rolling on how we were going to enter into this new world."

Westerhouse's typically humble response?

"Wherever I'm needed," he says, "I'll go."



Know a hero? Send suggestions to heroesamongus@peoplemag.com. For more inspiring stories, read the latest issue of PEOPLE magazine

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