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New county program gives mobility, improved quality of life to seniors

Fighting back tears, Debbie Amrhine had to pause before expressing her happiness for a new program that will give her elderly parents a chance to leave their home safely.

Amrhine said her 76-year-old father, disabled by a stroke 35 years ago, has suffered deteriorating health since October and has been unable to leave his house in Carney except for doctor appointments. She called the new Baltimore County government program that builds entrance ramps at homes of low-income seniors in the county a "godsend."

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"I asked my brother to build [our parents] a ramp, but we couldn't afford the materials, let alone a ramp," Amrhine, 56, said.

County Executive James T. Smith Jr. kicked off the initiative yesterday at the home of Amrhine and her parents, Edward and Audrey Kuzma.

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Amrhine had called the county Department of Aging and asked for assistance last fall, when her father's health worsened. She was told that the county was about to implement a program aimed at improving the lives of low-income seniors, and that assistance in the form of an entrance ramp would be possible.

Smith said he conceived the program during his election campaign in 2002, after noticing how many elderly people on low and fixed incomes were having difficulty with mobility at their homes. His next step was to contact Arnold Eppel, director of the Department of Aging, and Gus Lester, president of the local Baltimore carpenters union, to see if they could contribute to the program.

"Project Ramp," funded by a $10,000 grant from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, is overseen by Eppel. In addition, occupational therapists from Easter Seals will evaluate the specific needs of each recipient, and apprentices from the Baltimore carpenters union have volunteered their labor for free.

Dan Kuczinski, who supervised the construction of the Kuzmas' ramp and is director of training for the Baltimore Carpenters Joint Apprenticeship Committee, said a ramp such as theirs would cost about $3,000 in materials and could have a price tag of $14,000 as a finished product. But, he explained, this particular 400-square-foot ramp is a large one, and the material for most ramps costs from $500 to $4,000.

Eppel said a collaboration with the carpenters was a natural progression. "Why not take these apprentices while they are learning and put them on a job? What better place to help out than old folks?" he asked. Eppel added that there is another ramp in the works and expects to have more built by the end of the year.

Speaking to a small crowd in the Kuzmas' back yard, Smith said, "This program is the best example of public, private and nonprofit organizations working together."

Audrey Kuzma, 86, agreed. "It's the beginning of a good summer," she said, smiling. "This program will be useful long past our time."

Those who wish to have ramps installed must be county residents; at least 60 years old; live in a single-family home; be the homeowner or have the homeowner's permission to build; have a site that's suitable for a ramp; possess a certificate of need from a physician; and have an annual income of less than $28,800, the median income in Maryland. Information: 410-887-2594.


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