Five years ago, Ramon Ramirez woke up and couldn’t turn to look at his wife, Noemi. Overnight, his left side had frozen from neck to toes, the result of a Parkinson’s-like illness called corticobasal degeneration. The 52-year-old, who had once enjoyed heaping plates of meat and rice for dinner and lazy weekend afternoons drinking coffee, saw his condition progressively deteriorate: within six months, the paralysis had spread to his right side, and his neck drooped until his head came to rest on his shoulder. By 2013, he was being fed from a tube, unable to swallow or move anything other than his eyes and mouth.
Ramon was using a wheelchair, but the couple couldn’t afford the changes necessary to make their Calgary home accessible. So Noemi carried her husband around the house on her five-foot-two frame, at times tying a rope around his chest and pulling him step-by-step down the stairs and out the door for doctor’s appointments. As Noemi’s caregiving responsibilities grew-she didn’t want Ramon moved to a facility-she put in fewer hours at her nursing job and struggled to earn enough to cover medical costs. “We didn’t know where to turn,” she says. That’s when her husband’s speech pathologist, Lora Baker, told them about Hearts and Hammers, a new charity that was renovating homes for people with mobility issues. Baker had nominated Ramon and Noemi, and they’d been chosen.
Dave Bonk, a Calgary contractor and real estate investor, founded Hearts and Hammers in 2012. When he was 15, Bonk began working for a flooring company. A few years later, he started his own flooring business; at 26, he was investing in real estate full-time. But despite those successes, by the time he hit 30, Bonk was looking for something more fulfilling than flipping houses.
He’d noticed that some of the foreclosed homes his company was buying were in abysmal shape. “I thought, in a city as affluent as Calgary, why are people living in these conditions?” says Bonk. He started out by calling a plumber, a painter and a lawyer he knew and soon assembled a board, then solicited recommendations for candidates they could help. The nominees needed to meet three criteria: be homeowners, face economic hardship and suffer from mobility challenges. Hearts and Hammers set out to tackle one project a year.
The group takes suggestions via its website and word of mouth; this year, nine families were nominated. To execute the projects, which can cost up to $70,000, Hearts and Hammers relies on volunteers to donate money, materials or sweat equity. Local contractors help out with dry-walling and other tasks, and fundraising events collect cash for specialized work such as mobility lifts. At the Ramirez home, Hearts and Hammers renovated the bathroom and installed an outdoor ramp, an automatic front door, a wheelchair lift and a ceiling lift in Ramon’s second-floor bedroom. “Now we can easily go outside and get fresh air,” Noemi says. “Bringing Ramon to the doctor, I no longer think, How the hell am I going to do it?”
Next up, Hearts and Hammers plans to install a lift and a ramp, as well as renovate the bathroom, in the home of a 71-year-old woman who sleeps in a chair on her main floor because a back injury makes it difficult to access the upstairs bedroom. They’ll also outfit the home of a single mom whose three-year-old son suffers from Pallister-Killian syndrome, which causes developmental delays and weak muscle tone.
For the Ramirez family, the newly completed renovation has allowed Noemi and Ramon to live comfortably-together. “I had told myself, no matter how I do it, I’ll keep my husband at home.” Noemi says. “I thought we were alone, but then Hearts and Hammers appeared. Our life is totally different than it was before.”