By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes
Charlie Cheney needs a new van. One look at how he fits into the current one, a mid-1990s Ford Econoline, is probably all it would take for anyone to agree.
Charlie needs to tilt his chair back to about a 60-degree angle to clear his head under the roof of the van just to get inside. Once there, he’s only able to right himself to about 45 degrees, giving his face only about two inches of clearance from the interior ceiling. He’s ridden like this since he was 14 years old.
“If we’d ever have an accident, I’m not as secure as I could be,” Cheney said.
This weekend One Treasure Church is hosting an epic flea sale in hopes of raising the final portion of the $60,000 it will cost to get him a new one. The sale will be held June 28 and 29 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Cheney home, 1219 Manzanita Street N.E., in Keizer.
Charlie, 27, was born with a neuromuscular disease called spinal muscular atrophy that causes an ever-increasing weakness in his muscles. The condition has confined him to a wheelchair since age 13 when he had a metal rod inserted in his spine to correct scoliosis.
Charlie is a substitute teacher and tutor with the Salem-Keizer School District and an active member of his church. His mother, Ruth, drives him to many of his jobs and volunteer activities. They were headed out again last year when the chair lift broke. It was temporarily fixed, but the need for a new van has become more and more pressing since then.
“We asked the members of our congregation to pray for us and that led them to taking up the offering during Christmas Eve service and putting it into a fund for a new van,” he said.
To date, about $15,000 has been raised to put toward the cost of a new van with modifications.
A new vehicle – likely a minivan – would have a ramp instead of a lift and a lower floor to accommodate Charlie sitting fully upright.
Oregon’s Office of Vocational Rehabilitation Services has agreed to pay for the the cost of the modifications, about $30,000, but the Cheneys, and now One Treasure Church, are obliged to cover the cost of the van.
“Some people have asked why we need a new van, but it’s something you want to get a lot of life out of if you’re going to do all the necessary modifications,” Ruth said.
Charlie himself could easily be a poster child of the differently abled. After graduating from McNary High School in 2005, he attended Corban University where he planned to major in architecture. At least until one day sitting in a history class.
“I was in class, and I realized I wanted to help people to know history better,” he said.
Charlie returned after getting his degree to obtain teaching credentials and he’s currently working on adding English for Speakers of Other Languages certifications. He’d like to learn Spanish.
As part of the district’s Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program he now tutors students who are likely to be the first in their families to attend college.
While the wheelchair might seem like an impediment to teacher-student bonding, it’s usually more of a boon.
“Sometimes it takes a little while, but at soon as they start they move quickly. It’s a big plus,” Charlie said. “The students give me the benefit of the doubt and the trust is built faster than with ordinary people. It happens outside the classroom, too.”
Extra motivation to help out might not be needed at this point but, if it is, think of the new van as a way to help Charlie change the world. Few people, healthy or differently abled, would be better ambassadors.
Donations can be made to the Cheney van fund during the flea sale.