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Michael O’Connell
PO Box 41815
Sacramento, CA 95841

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My name is Michael O’Connell. I live in Sacramento, California. I have Muscular Dystrophy, and as a result, I’m in a wheelchair.

And as a result, I need a van.

Let’s clear something up first…I HAVE a van. It’s one I’ve had since 1992, and one I got through the kindness of a wonderful woman named Yvonne, who sold it to me at much less than its value. There were a number of reasons for this incredible gesture, but the main one was that it had belonged to her son, Corey, an amazing guy who, too, had Muscular Dystrophy, but had passed away a couple of years before. It had taken her and her family that long to finally part with it, and their choice to let it go came at the exact perfect time for us to find each other. Through their actions, I got my first vehicle at the age of twenty-four, and finally achieved complete independence. And I will always have them…and Corey…to thank for that.

It took me until twenty-four to get a van because it took me that long to be able to afford one. You see, I can’t drive just any vehicle. Due to my disability, I need a handicapped-equipped van. But due to my particular disability situation, an ordinary modified van, with hand-controls and such, won’t do. I needed a van with something called the Scott System, a very expensive driving system that allows people like myself with limited mobility, reach and strength to operate it. And as suggested, it ain’t cheap. Prices were different back then, but these days, a new van with that system in it is going for about $90,000.

My van has carried me along through almost fifteen years, and has been a Godsend. It’s allowed me to live on my own, to work through all those years, to get around without the need of assistance from others. It really did change my entire life. But the problem is that I HAVE had it for fifteen years. And as much as I love it and where it came from, it’s a 1985 van, with almost 170,000 miles on it, and it’s falling apart. Almost daily. And it’s not going to last much longer.

Half the things on my van either don’t work or don’t work properly. For example—this is the way getting into the van is SUPPOSED to work. I’m supposed to be able to roll up there in my chair, put a key in the rear of the vehicle, bring the wheelchair lift down, ride up on it, get in the van, start it, and drive away. As it stands now, due to electrical and mechanical problems, I have to go up to the front door of the van, open it, reach up (due to the Muscular Dystrophy, “reaching up” is not something I do well) to the control box for the system, hit the ignition button, reach up and over (that reach thing again…) to the steering wheel (which I can barely reach from down there) and hit the start button and hold down the gas to start it up (this is because I now can’t use the lift without starting the engine first, or it drains the battery immediately), go back to the rear of the van and start to bring the lift down (but most do so carefully, with careful segmented use of the switch, because if I just activate it outright the lift tends to stick and stays up there while the chains on it just feed out onto the ground), hop the chair over the little ramp at the end of the lift because it no longer folds down when the lift reaches ground, reach up and pull down the activation lever for raising the lift because it no longer folds down with the lift like it’s supposed to, ride the lift up and say a prayer that it won’t short out halfway up (which it’s started doing) and leave me stuck there, get inside, close the doors, then get up front and strap into the driver’s seat and put it into reverse (which I sort of have to do by “feel”, because the gear change indicator no longer works) and take off. Then, getting out, I need to reverse the whole process, again leaving the engine running while I’m getting out for the lift to work, and since the controls at the rear for the lift no longer raise the lift back up, I have to put my hand on the lever switch on the lift and hold onto it as it goes back up (and try not to get pulled out of the chair in the process…), and then go up the driver door, open it, reach up and turn off the engine. And at any given time one of the parts of this process may just not work, so each time getting in and out is a breath-holding experience.

The current van, in all its "glory"

I’ve had many exciting adventures with the rapidly-aging van. There was the time the electrical system went out in the middle of the freeway, at the intersection of two freeways, during rush hour traffic, leaving me stranded in the middle (until a police cruiser rolled up, and the officer advised me “You’re going to get killed” and had to push me and my van off the freeway with his cruiser. There was the time the crankshaft ate itself at 70mph on the freeway, which almost put me through the center divider. Or the time the steering gave out when I was making a left turn across traffic, leaving me stranded blocking both lanes of oncoming traffic. Or when the gear controls went out when I was backing out of a parking space at a small market, and I blocked anyone from getting their cars into the lot. Or the big issue lately, the lift. Recently it went bad to where I could get the lift down, but couldn’t get it back up. I had to bring it down, get out of my chair and literally crawl into the back of the van, use the manual controls inside to bring the lift (and my chair) up to me and then get back in the chair. Then when getting out, I wouldn’t be able to get it back up, so, until I found a place to work on it (my lift it so old the manufacturer no longer supports it, so 95% of shops won’t touch it for insurance reasons), I had to slide open the side door on the van, get out of my chair, sit on the floor, and hold onto my chair and lower it to the ground myself...and then lower myself into it. Which was a pain (and a workout), but was kind of working until the night I got home from work and was trying, and the chair dropped and just yanked me right out of the van with it and threw me to the asphalt. Okay, OUCH…

There’s a big list of things that aren’t working, and new things being added to it all the time. Right now, in fact, I’m trying to find parts for the after-market electric windows, because it’s turned summertime in Sacramento, and it’s hitting 90 degrees already, and neither of my windows roll down and the air-conditioning is out (THAT makes for a long commute…). If things go wrong but there’s still some kind of work-around, it’s annoying, but I don’t complain much, as long as it’ll still get me to work somehow. But it’s when things break that have to be fixed where the problems come in. Assuming I can even find someone to work on what the problem is, the problem is usually very expensive to fix. And continuing to pour money into a twenty-year old van that’s just going to keep going under doesn’t make a lot of sense.

So I’ve known for a while that this thing is on its last legs. Which leads to the idea of replacing it. Which leads us back to the $90,000 thing. Okay, I don’t actually HAVE $90,000. I work for a living, as I said. I’m very disabled, but I don’t take a government check. I work, and I work hard…often twelve hours at day at the office, often six days a week. Unfortunately, I don’t have the kind of job that pays enough to be able to replace the van (frankly, not enough to continue fixing it…). I’ve known for a while now that one of these time, something’s finally going to go wrong that’s not fixable or is way too expensive to fix, and that then I’d be stuck looking for a new van (and some way to afford it). I should also note that finding one of these vans available is no easy task either. New ones are obviously way out of my price range, which leaves me with needing to find a used one, and generally somebody out there has to be selling one for that to happen. And that person could be on the other side of the country, as there just aren’t that many of these out there in the first place.

But recently, when I started having more van problems, my stepfather, Jack, frustrated with what I was going through, decided to call the company that builds them and find out if any of them are floating around out there right now. What he found out is that this company had just equipped a used van for someone, and that this someone had to back out of the deal at the last minute. So it turns out that one is right there at their company in L.A., and available right now.

And it’s a beauty.

The "Scott System", the one that works for me, in the available van

What they have is a 2002 Ford E-150 with the Scott System in it. It also only has 30,000 miles on it. It has a lift that’s NOT older than many of the people I work with, and it’s in amazing condition, and it has all kinds of bonuses that only someone driving a van like mine could appreciate. Like a working stereo (all I’ve ever had is a cheap A.M. radio that shorted out a long time ago). All of its gears (mine currently does not have “park” as a working gear). A control system with buttons that don’t stick and that all work, and a brake system that fully functions (my hand-control brakes went bad a couple of year ago, forcing me to switch to the brake pedal to stop). Its dash lights all light up (half of mine don’t about half of the time). The windows roll down and the air-conditioning works. The engine doesn’t sputter and die two or three times in the morning before you can drive it, or stall out if you give it too much gas taking off from a stop light. The lift works without making terrible grinding noises and sometimes needing (literally) to be kicked to function. The side door actually opens (mine currently can’t…which is probably better because it also has a habit of coming open while I’m driving…).

In short, it’s a dependable, functional and safe van. And it’s exactly the one I need.

And oh my, is it funky.

The van that's available. Oh...YEAH...

I had to laugh when my stepfather forwarded the e-mail to me with the van photos. Is that the paint job I would have chosen for myself…me, a 37-year old working professional? Probably not. But seeing it, I totally fell in love with it, nonetheless. That van doesn’t just function. It has STYLE. And attitude. I think it’s gorgeous.

Don't call "Pimp My Ride". This one comes pre-pimped!

And, being a used van, it also doesn’t carry quite the same price tag as one of their new ones does. It’s going for right about $50,000 (a little more, due to the fitting and adjustment work that would have to be done to adapt it to me). Granted, that’s still $50,000 more than I have, but it sure beats $90,000. It’s $40,000 less than a new one (which might have been my only option if my van had totally gone under and no used ones were available at that time), and, again, it’s a 2002 with only 30,000 miles. That means, if I were to get it, that pretty much guarantees me another decade of relatively worry-free (for a change) driving, without it going back in the shop time and again and leaving me taking cabs to work while its being fixed. I still can’t quite fathom that…just getting in my vehicle and starting it and driving without listening carefully to every little new noise and wondering if it’s a noise that means I’m going to be stuck on the side of (or sometimes in the middle of) the road again, calling yet another tow truck (I think AAA knows me by voice now…), without wondering if once I get in it I’ll be trapped in it by a malfunctioning lift (which has happened many times). Your idea of a dream come true may differ from mine, but this, to me, would be a complete miracle.

However…we’re back to that problem of $50,000.

As I said, I don’t have the kind of career that means I have fifty large sitting around at my disposal. It’s unfortunate that due to my circumstances, I don’t have any option but a vehicle with this kind of price tag on it. It’s either that or no wheels. And I really, really need wheels. I lead a busy life. I’ve chosen not to sit home and feel sorry for myself, but to get out in the world and live life and make my own way it in. I don’t want that life to go away again. And it’s the wheels that really make it all work.

I’ve heard for some time about so-called “begging sites” on the internet. People will build web pages asking for money for all kinds of reasons. Some of them noble and necessary, and some of them, frankly, kind of silly. I’ve heard lately of the “bunny guy” who put up a page with a picture of him and a bunny, and was planning to cook and eat the bunny if enough people didn’t send him money. And he got money (a lot of bunny lovers out there)! And I heard he even started up a separate account for people who WANTED him to eat the bunny. And he got money for that, too. I recall a news story on a woman in New York who had divorced a wealthy husband, and now could no longer afford to live the lifestyle she’d grown accustomed to. So she put up a site, and people started sending her money to keep her stylish apartment, shop at Bloomingdale’s, hit the spa, etc. There are thousands of stories like that out there (some of them really funny), and thousands of people sending money to those sites.

So it occurred me, if people are willing to give money to woman to keep her shoe inventory from dropping below 200, maybe they might be willing to help a guy out who needs a van. Seems like it’s a pretty good cause. Not as good as saving bunnies, but still pretty good.

So, just like with that girl you really want to take to the prom, I figured it never hurts to ask.

Okay, bad example. Scratch that.

Wait...is that a wheelchair lift that actually WORKS? GET out...

It’s very against my nature to ask for things. For help, specifically. I don’t take it from the government, I fight it from my family, and I even hurry to open doors myself so other people don’t have to open them for me. It’s just who I am. But this is pretty big. Finding a way to come up with 50k is a little beyond pulling up one’s own bootstraps. I’ve got to come up with some way to make this happen. So, again, against my nature, I’m asking total strangers if they want to help out.

I don’t know if it’s realistic to expect to reach the whole goal with a request like this, but even if I can get part of the way there, it might still be doable. I figure if I can reach enough people who might be willing to throw a few bucks my way to be a part of making this happen—and the internet age actually makes something like this possible—I might actually be able to get this van while it’s still available. And continue to lead the independent life that I’ve worked so hard to make for myself in a world that constantly tells me “you can’t do that”. “I can” isn’t just a platitude for me, it’s a way of life. And I’d love to add “I CAN come up with enough money for this van” to my list of achievements.

In case, at this point, you’re wanting to know a little bit more about the wonderful and innovate people who build these vans (and would be selling me mine), I figure I’d better throw you a link to the site for the friendly folks at Driving Systems Incorporated:

www.drivingsystems.com

There’s a good chunk of info on them and their company, and the vans they build, on their site. These guys are really great. They’re out of Van Nuys (“Van” Nuys…ironic, don’t you think?), California, and though I’ve never (yet) met them personally, they’ve always been there for me over the phone when I’ve had problems with my vehicle—with helpful advice, direction on who to go to in whatever area I was living in at the time, direct assistance such as when I had to have my steering system removed and shipped to them for repair, and with the always-present question, “So when are we going to be able to get you into a new van?”

I hope I can finally answer that question.

So, look, I know I’m not asking for a new kidney here. I’m not in need of some life-saving operation. I know that there are plenty of other worthy causes more deserving of your time and hard-earned money (some of them involving bunnies…). But since I’m not seeing too many other options at this point, I figure what the heck. I’ll ask. So if you have a few bucks to spare (or, you know, fifty-thousand of them…), and this is something you might want to help out with, I’d be so much more grateful than you can imagine. You’d be helping a guy out who wants nothing more than to keep on working and living life and being part of the world on his own terms. Really, blue flames are just a bonus, not the motivation. I swear. If you do, and you’re willing, just click on that PayPal link (please note, you don't need a PayPal account to use this. You can use major credit cards, too!), and whatever you can help with is going to make a difference. And if you have any questions, you can feel free to contact me at oconnellmd@aol.com.

Thank you very much for your time, and your consideration, and my best wishes to you and yours.

Michael O’Connell
June, 2006

Click HERE to view the van specs

R E L A T E D - L I N K S

The "I Need a Van" Blog

Tim's eBay Auction - Van Fundraiser (PULLED! See Blog)

Digg.com Story (Tony)

Browncoat Board Posting (Suzi)

Kingbloom Super Premium Charity Listing (Jeremy)

Craigslist Posting, DC Metro (Joel)

Civoc.com News Listing (Arnold)

Craigslist Posting, Sacramento (Kristina)

DirPros.com Premium Listing (McFox)

DRHfinegifts.com fundraiser! (Denise)

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Current Total
(02/09/07)

$26,055.78

NEWS FLASH!!

The van story hit both Channel 3 and Channel 58 on 7/7!

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NEWS FLASH!

The van story appeared on both Channel 31 and Channel 13 in Sacramento on 6/22!