Cal Poly students remodel homes for disabled South County residents

Everyday tasks such as getting in and out of bed, moving from room to room, and taking a shower are major hurdles for two local recipients of this year’s PolyHouse project.

The home renovation project started by Cal Poly professor Roya Javadpour, who teaches graduate-level industrial and manufacturing engineering, is now marking its 11th anniversary.

The project entails a major fundraising, planning and building effort organized by students to help a local family or individuals struggling with disabilities.

Under Javadpour’s guidance, students typically renovate one home in San Luis Obispo County each year, though they selected two projects each of the past two years.

This year, the students were ready to focus their efforts solely on remodeling the home of Joshua Nelson, a 34-year-old Grover Beach man with cerebral palsy and epilepsy.

The work on the Grover Beach home has involved installing a bed lift; making the bathroom, doorways and backyard wheelchair accessible; and installing hardwood floors.

But as students made plans to work on his home, they felt they also needed to help a family in Nipomo.

After hearing the story of 53-year-old Donna Birnbaum, who was paralyzed after a fall from her bed a year ago while dealing with a gastrointestinal sickness, they decided to take on a second remodel — albeit a smaller job.

Birnbaum needed help expanding her bathroom so that she could be wheeled in and out to take a shower.

“We had already decided to help the man in Grover Beach, but when we went to Nipomo and met with the family and heard their story, we knew we couldn’t say ‘no,’” said Christina Boeryd, a student project co-manager. “Their story was just so sad.”

The students completed the work on the Grover Beach home Sunday. The Nipomo bathroom remodel is expected to be finished this week.

Nelson’s mother died four years ago, and he depends completely upon the help of caregivers Silvia and Guadalupe Ortiz, who have cared for him since he was 4.

Nelson can’t talk, but he can understand when people speak to him in English and Spanish, said Silvia Ortiz, who communicates in Spanish in the home.

“It made me very tired to have to move him, and my husband would have to help,” Silvia Ortiz said in Spanish. “Now, it will be much easier. It’s much more comfortable. I’m very happy the students did this work. It looks very nice.”

The students began the class projects in April, at the beginning of the quarter.

Javadpour said the key is to nail down the planning so the execution, which takes place at a furious pace over the course of a couple of weeks, mostly on weekends, goes as smoothly as possible.

“The project provides a rare educational platform that goes beyond the classroom setting into the actual implementation, and students see firsthand that they have it within themselves to make an impact in the community and someone's life,” Javadpour said.

The project was paid for entirely through student fundraising efforts and generous community donors who contributed to a budget of about $100,000, including labor and materials for both projects.

Past projects have included helping a man whose spine was crushed in a motorcycle accident; a general and electrical contractor who lost use of his limbs after exposure to chemicals; and San Luis Obispo rancher Dan De Vaul, whose Sunny Acres property helps the homeless and those addicted to alcohol and drugs.

The class selects each project after local nonprofits and service providers connect Javadpour with potential candidates.

For Birnbaum, a former registered nurse, the new bathroom will allow her to take a shower at home for the first time in more than a year.

Her husband, Herb Birnbaum, said she has taken baths since her accident, in which she fell off of her bed while sick and he found her with her head trapped against a box.

He said being trapped after falling out of bed caused what essentially was a stroke to her spine; with the blood supply shut off, her nerves died, rendering her a quadriplegic.

“It is not just the physical remodel that is important to us, which will make our life easier,” Herb Birnbaum said in a letter to the PolyHouse team. “But it is knowing that people we never met care enough to help us and others in similar situations out.”

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