Thursday, October 08, 2009

Couple ready to hit road in customized van

Couple ready to hit road in customized van

By Wayne Laepple
The Daily Item

NORTHUMBERLAND — If you happen to see a large white van parked outside Paul and Barbara Schaffer’s King Street home, you’re looking at Harvey.

Harvey is actually a

Sprinter van that’s been customized to accommodate Barbara’s wheelchair.

“We named it Harvey after the big white rabbit in the movie,” Barbara said with a chuckle. “Maybe we’ll paint a pink nose and whiskers on it some day.”

Actor James Stewart starred in the 1950 movie, “Harvey,” about a man who befriends an invisible six-foot tall rabbit, or pooka.

The Schaffers never thought they’d ever be interested in a recreational vehicle or a second home, but after a visit to Arches National Park in Utah a couple of years ago, they changed their minds.

“We really wanted to sleep out under the stars,” said Barbara, “but we just couldn’t do that.”

Since 2001, the couple has enjoyed attending half a dozen music festivals every year, and they wanted to be able to join friends who camp at the events and take part in the after-hours jams they’ve only heard about.

“We started thinking about it, but no one builds any that are handicapped-accessible,” Paul said. “What we wanted just didn’t exist.”

Barbara, 60, who suffers from reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome, a debilitating nerve condition, has been using a battery-powered wheelchair for a number of years as her condition has changed. Paul, 63, took early retirement to care for her following her 1987 injury.

They did see a few motor homes that could have been adapted, he said, but they were all very large luxury units, so large that they would have had to tow their Dodge Caravan behind to transport Barbara from the campground to an event. Besides, those units were way outside their price range. Even an Internet search for a used vehicle came up dry, since their particular needs couldn’t be met in a used vehicle without extensive modifications.

“We decided we had to start fresh,” Barbara said.

She decided they should find the right lift unit to get her and her wheelchair into the vehicle. However, they didn’t want a unit that would occupy space inside the vehicle. She finally found a company, Creative Controls, in Madison Heights, Mich., that assured them they could mount their lift beneath whatever vehicle they chose for their motor home.

Next they found a custom builder of motor homes, Sportsmobile, in Huntingdon, Ind.

“They make custom vans, not RVs,” said Paul. “These are the people who, in 1961, modified the first Volkswagen vans into campers.”

The Schaffers found a perfect ally in Sportsmobile. The company provided an online floor plan that allowed the couple to develop a floor plan using the components the needed where they needed them. For example, instead of a right-hand front seat, a power-operated tie-down for Barbara’s wheelchair was specified.

Because Barbara cannot step over the entrance to the bathroom, they changed the layout so the commode is next to the doorway. She can sit on the commode, then lift her legs and pivot into the space. To make that change work, the hot water heater had to be downsized and relocated.

Working closely with the design team at Sportsmobile, it took nearly two months to get the interior layout completed.

“There was a lot of problem-solving by phone.” Barbara said.

They had already settled on the Sprinter, a vehicle designed by Mercedes and sold by Chrysler in this country, but it took some time to locate a 24-footer, the largest one made, and then have the necessary windows installed. The vans are shipped into the U.S. with only the windshield and door windows, so other doors and windows had to be installed after they purchased it.

The truck was purchased in Michigan and delivered to Creative Controls for installation of the wheelchair lift, then taken to Indiana for the rest of the work. The Schaffers went to the Sportsmobile plant to be present as workers installed the bathroom and kitchen modules to be certain the wheelchair would fit where it was supposed to.

“They were wonderful to work with,” Barbara said. “They wanted to be sure everything was right.”

At one point, the locking mechanism to hold her wheelchair would not work correctly, and a technician from Creative Controls came to Indiana to correct the problem. They wound up having to take the vehicle back to the plant to get it right, which held up work at Sportsmobile for a day or so.

The results, the couple agree, have exceeded their expectations.

They demonstrated the lift, which folds out from beneath the vehicle. Barbara backed her wheelchair onto it, and it hoisted her up to floor level. She backed in and turned around near the folding table where they can take meals. Then she moved forward and the electronic lock snapped into place. She pulled on her seat belt and was ready to go.

In the middle of the unit, the compact kitchen, complete with stove, refrigerator, microwave and sink, faces the lavatory, which features a sink, shower and commode. Behind them are two couches that quickly convert to beds.

“We’ve also got air-conditioning and a furnace,” Paul said, as he swung the rear doors wide to reveal a fabric screen across the doorway that will let them indeed sleep outdoors. There’s also a generator for lights, and they will be able to use it to charge the batteries on Barbara’s wheelchair.

“People told us we couldn’t do this,” she said. “We were persistent, and we found the right people to help.”

The couple drove the unit back from Indiana, and Paul said the 5-cylinder, three-liter diesel engine with a five-speed automatic transmission gave them better than 20 miles per gallon.

“A piece of you asks why you’re doing this,” he said, as he contemplated the cost of Harvey. He wouldn’t say exactly how much it cost them. “This cost more than either of the homes we’ve owned, but will let us do something together that we both enjoy.”

Click Here For The Original Article Online.


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