MCCORDSVILLE — Everywhere she goes, Jennise Rodriguez encounters obstacles — whether a single step, crack in the concrete or a small gap between a sidewalk and doorway.
For the mother of a son with a medical condition that requires him to use a wheelchair, what amount to minor inconveniences to most people become literal stumbling blocks throughout her day.
Her 6-year-old son, Gabriel, was born with mitochondrial myopathy, a muscular condition. While most able-bodied people don’t think twice about navigating everyday errands, getting from point A to point B is not always simple for Gabriel, his mother said. That’s true both in public and at school, where Gabriel must navigate sidewalks and other areas that aren’t always wheelchair-accessible.
So when she received a call from Mike Derringer, a home health care nurse who had cared for her son, offering to build several ramps at Gabriel’s school, she was overwhelmed, Rodriguez said.
Story continues below gallery
Derringer had cared for Gabriel several days prior to that phone call, assisting him throughout the day and accompanying him to his school, McCordsville Elementary School.
On that day in late October, Derringer noticed during recess that most of the kindergartners were hanging out by the playground, but an 8-inch concrete curb kept Gabriel from joining the fun.
While the other kids were playing by the swings, Gabriel was restricted to the paved sidewalk and basketball court, where he could safely maneuver his wheelchair, Derringer said.
That image stuck with him and he began wondering what he might be able to do to help his young patient.
After returning home, Derringer, also a craftsman, realized he could easily build a few ramps to allow Gabriel to be by his friends. With the go-ahead from school administrators, Derringer spent the next Saturday constructing and installing three plywood ramps.
It might seem like a small gesture, but the difference it’s made for Gabriel has been immense, said Kayla Wiseman, Gabriel’s kindergarten teacher.
In the three weeks the ramps have been in place, Wiseman said, it’s clear recess holds a new appeal for Gabriel.
“Now he goes back and forth under the playground with his friends the whole time,” Wiseman said. “It’s just great.”
Stephanie Miller, principal at McCordsville Elementary School, said she’s received offers from students’ parents in the past to help with landscaping and other beautification projects on campus, but Derringer’s commitment stands out from the rest; it wasn’t his child who was going to benefit.
“It’s refreshing to see someone … without a direct tie to the school making an offer like this,” she said.
Rodriguez said it’s heartwarming to know Derringer not only took note of the issue but also took action to find a solution that made all the difference for her son.
“It’s hard for people to realize just how much it can take to go from one place another,” she said. “Many people are just oblivious to those small drops and gaps that are difficult for someone who can’t get around easily.”
Derringer, who lives on the far east side of Indianapolis, said he remembers what recess meant to him as a kid.
“It’s an important time of the school day,” he said. “It’s a chance to play with your friends.”
So it seemed natural for him to find a way for Gabriel to be with his friends, he said.
“Just because it was 8 inches below the sidewalk, a good amount of the playground was off limits,” Derringer said. “It stood out to me, and I knew I could come up with a simple solution.”
Carpentry has been a hobby of Derringer’s for years. Most of the furniture in his home was built by hand in his workshop, he said.
Although the ramp was a relatively quick build — Derringer estimates the whole project took less than 8 hours — Rodriguez said the small effort has made a huge difference.
“You struggle so much with those little accommodations,” she said. “All it takes is a small adjustment, but it just warms my heart that he went out of his way to help.”