Union volunteers build 300th wheelchair ramp
TUKWILA – A Seattle-are veteran who served his country in Vietnam was the recipient of another kind of service recently when volunteers from the Machinists Union built a wheelchair ramp to help him get in and out of his Tukwila home.
The ramp represented a major milestone for both Dan Olson, the veteran who got the ramp, and for the Machinists Volunteer Program members who built it. It was the 300th ramp that the MVPs have built for Puget Sound-area residents since their program launched in 1997.
“We’ve done a lot of projects that have helped a lot of great people over the years,” said Robley Evans, the chairman of the MVP Committee. “But our 300th ramp was really rewarding, because we were helping a veteran who had also been a fellow union member.”
“Thank you very much,” Olson told the MVPs who built the ramp. “I appeciate your help.”
The Machinists Volunteer Program was the brainchild of Bill Johnson, the former president of Machinists Union District Lodge 751 in Seattle, and Ed Lutgen, who at the time was a union activist.
Lutgen, who is now District 751’s steward coordinator, said that union members had been active in the communities around Seattle for years, but in a sort of “sporadic” ad hoc basis.
Forming the MVP Committee was “a way to get organized in our volunteerism,” Lutgen said. “That way, we could give thanks to the people who were taking the time to do things, and also to let the public see that we’re giving back.”
Wheelchair ramps weren’t originally at the top of the to-do list when the MVP Committee was formed, Lutgen said. Another Seattle-area union had been building them for years.
But during the late ‘90s, the demand for wheelchair ramps grew too fast for the other union’s volunteers to keep up. In 1998, the King County Labor Agency – the charitable arm of labor in the Seattle area — approached District 751 to see if it could help whittle down the backlog, which led to the MVPs setting aside a weekend to prefabricate seven ramps at their Seattle Union Hall on a Saturday. They then installed all seven the next day.
It’s been 13 years, and many of those first seven ramps still are being used by their original recipients today, Lutgen said.
In the years since, the MVP Committee has grown, with literally thousands of union members taking part in different community service activities.
Today, volunteers from the group feed the homeless several weekends each month at rescue missions in Everett and Tacoma. More than a hundred typically turn out each December when the union partners with Seattle TV station KING and Northwest Harvest, a local food bank, for an annual holiday food drive. Volunteers also do annual spring cleaning at a local summer camp and scores turn out on weekends during the summer to help with fundraising events that support Guide Dogs of America, a charity sponsored by the Machinists Union, including a fun run, a motorcycle poker run, a car show, a horseshoe tournament and an annual weekend of racing at a local drag strip.
District 751 is the top fundraiser nationwide for Guide Dogs, contributing some $276,000 in 2010.
And the MVPs build wheelchair ramps. From the early days of pre-fabbed ramps, the MVPs have developed their skills building custom ramps, including a record 95-footer they built for a retired nurse in Tacoma in 2010.
As the program has grown, it has received more recognition as well. In 2010 and 2011, the White House honored District 751 as a group and eight individual Machinists for their MVP activities with President’s Volunteer Service Awards.
The individual Machinists received silver or bronze pins, a certificate and a letter signed by President Obama thanking them for “the kind of commitment to your community that moves America a step closer to its great promise.”
“Our union has two goals,” said Tom Wroblewski, the Machinists’ district president. “We want to make the places we work better, and we want to improve the communities where we live. The outstanding work done by our union MVPs is making a difference, and making our corner of America a better place.”
Originally formed in 1935 to represent hourly workers at the Boeing Co., Machinists District 751 now represents more than 28,000 working men and women at 44 employers across Washington, Oregon and California. In 2010, District 751 members gave nearly 6,200 hours of volunteer community service and raised more than $276,000 for Guide Dogs of America, the union’s charity of choice.
To watch a video of the MVPs building Dan Olson’s wheelchair ramp, check out our YouTube channel.