Lexington woman realizes dream; Habitat builds fully wheelchair-accessible house

jwarren@herald-leader.comDecember 9, 2013 

Lexington's Misty Hess expects to realize a seven-year dream in early January by moving into her first home — a spanking new Habitat For Humanity house built specifically for her.

Hess' new home also will be a first for Habitat for Humanity of Lexington. The one-bedroom home is the first fully wheelchair-accessible house the organization has built, according to Dana Stefaniak, Habitat's resource development director.

Hess, 37, said she started looking for a house in 2007, but couldn't find anything that met her special needs. Since she has cerebral palsy and uses a motorized , Hess needed a one-floor layout with extra room for her chair to maneuver.

"Everything that I looked at was one floor, but they all had some steps and the bathrooms were too small," she said.

Her spirits picked up when a counselor told Hess that Habitat possibly could build a house that would be accessible for her. Hess applied to Habitat and was accepted into the program earlier this year.

Construction on her new house began in October, and Hess pitched in herself, helping with the work every step along the way.

Hess' new home will be dedicated Dec. 14; she officially takes ownership Dec. 30. Hess plans to move in about a week after that, along with her cat Skyler.

Hess, who was born with cerebral palsy (CP), has been working to become independent all her life. She said that her mother taught her that she could overcome any obstacle and encouraged her never to say "I can't."

Hess left her native Pennsylvania in 2004 to attend graduate school at the University of Kentucky, where she earned a master's degree in Rehabilitation Counsel.

Now, she works for Bluegrass Community and Technical College, where she coordinates tutoring services in the Department of Disability Support.

Hess lives in an apartment a few blocks from Main Street. But the bathtub lacks handrails, and the uneven floors have caused her to fall several times.

"One of the things I've dreamed of all my life was having a home of my own," she said. "The main concern was having a place I could still use my wheelchair and be safe."

Thanks to some extra work by Habitat, Hess' new home on Ash Street should more than meet that wish.

There will be a ramp for Hess' wheelchair, and she can roll under the kitchen stove top and sink, which is in line with the guidelines for the American's With Disabilities Act. The bathroom also meets ADA requirements, with grab bars and a built-in shower chair.

Closets and rooms offer a five-foot turning radius for Hess' wheelchair. The heights of electrical outlets and light switches have been adjusted to provide easier access from the wheelchair. Finally, all interior rooms have sliding "pocket doors" to maximize space.

Fitting those provisions within Habitat's single-family house design required several modifications, said Habitat construction coordinator Kelsey Giauque.

"In our single-family design, most things are standardized with limited options," Giauque said. "But for Misty's house that just wouldn't work. So we made quite a few changes."

For example, the design usually provides two bedrooms. But one bedroom was eliminated to provide Hess with more space.

Micah Johnson, a UK interior design student who interned with Habitat over the summer, worked directly with Hess to develop the design alterations.

Hess also wanted to be directly involved in building her new house. So, she hammered nails, painted walls and helped hang doors.

"Being involved in the construction, working side by side with the people who were helping, and knowing that they were all volunteers doing it out of love, was very important to me," she said.

"I was at the site almost every day, and the construction manager was really good about find things that I could do."

Stefaniak said Hess hopes her story might demonstrate to other Lexingtonians with handicaps that they too could have homes of their own.

"I think she really hopes her situation will inspire others to come in and see if they could qualify for the Habitat home ownership process," she said.

Jim Warren: (859) 231-3255.

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