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Woman leads organization building wheelchair ramps

RICHMOND, Va. — To those who know her, Susan Revere exemplifies one of the key ingredients of doing things for others: working behind the scenes and being an instrument of a good cause.

Many area residents may be familiar with the nonprofit organization she leads, RampsRVA, which is short for Ramp Access Made Possible by Students in Richmond, Va.

But few people know about the tremendous impact that Revere’s colleagues say she’s made through her exceptional organizational and planning skills that’s led to the construction of 440 wheelchair ramps, free of charge, for residents in the region who have disabilities and are economically disadvantaged.

And in the process, she’s accomplished another important goal: empowering young, able-bodied high school and college students who volunteer their time to help construct the ramps. They are introduced to parts of the Richmond area they’ve likely never seen, and develop connections to less fortunate residents who live very different lives.

Many of her colleagues, former student volunteers and ramp recipients describe her variously as “incredibly humble,” empathetic, friendly, driven and uncommonly hard-working. Even when faced with problems, they say, she rises to the occasion without complaint or a harsh word.

“She’s like an angel,” said Alease Adkins, who received a ramp that helped change her life after it was installed at her Henrico County home in August. “God took her to me.”

“She looked out for me, you know,” Adkins added. “She did everything she said she would do. Everything. I can get in and out of the house a whole lot better.”

Colin Berger, a longtime volunteer who graduated from Washington and Lee University in May, said he’s never met someone “who has done so much and is so incredibly humble about it.”

“She’s personally responsible for literally hundreds of ramps,” Berger said. “And every one of those ramps obviously benefits the recipients. And that’s to say nothing of all the family members and heath care workers and other people who are associated with the recipient whose lives are made easier by the fact that the recipient has a ramp.”

“She is so passionate about this work, and she’s so active in doing it,” Berger added. “Every time a problem arises — no matter how many other problems she’s dealing with — she gets right on it — with a smile. “It sounds cliché-ish, but it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen.”

Berger knows firsthand how satisfying it is to build ramps, not only for the people on the receiving end but also for the student volunteers who team up to construct them.

“These people have been cooped up in their house for lengths of time that can stretch into years,” Berger explained. “And they haven’t been able to get out easily — or at all — by themselves. And to actually see the look on people’s faces when they get outside for the first time using one of these ramps — it’s amazing.”

Berger said it’s the most empowering and affirming feeling he’s ever experienced in any volunteer setting.

“And Susan, I would say, is entirely to thank for that,” he said. “She does all things behind the scenes that have to be done in order for the ramps to actually get built.”

Natasha Brown, whose mother was the beneficiary of one of the ramps in July, noted in a letter of appreciation just how life-changing the gift was for her family.

“Since the ramp was built, my mother’s caregiver has taken her out on walks during the day,” Brown wrote. “They have gone on car rides, even to go get a Slurpee from a local 7-Eleven.

“She’s been able to do things that she hasn’t been able to do since all of this (her mother’s deteriorating health) began over two years ago.”

RampsRVA was founded by a group of students at Collegiate School in 2005. The nonprofit organization did not have the infrastructure in place to meet the demand then, said Jim Dowd, president of the organization’s board of directors.

“We brought Susan in, and she turned it around and got it all organized. She professionalized it,” Dowd said. “She was also able to expand it to multiple high schools and colleges where, before, it was just being done at Collegiate.”

“She not only expanded it with the schools, but also with major companies that wanted to have a workday or volunteer day with their employees,” he added. “So Susan brought it to a whole different level.”

In her 13 years as executive director, Revere and her volunteers have raised more than $1 million. She has been directly involved with the installation and upkeep of 440 hardened modular steel ramps that cost an average of $3,000 apiece.

She also has fostered a passion for this work among more than 1,000 volunteers from over 27 schools and colleges in the Richmond area and elsewhere, sometimes coordinating the efforts of more than 150 volunteers in a single year, Dowd said.

Dowd noted that Revere can often be seen driving around the Richmond area behind the wheel of a yellow box truck, with photos of grinning volunteers and “ecstatic ramp recipients” adorning the sides.

The back bed is filled with ramp rails, handrails, nuts, bolts, washers and black spray paint.

“But the most important feature of this truck,” Dowd said, “is the nine-word motto printed on the sides in bold letters: RAMPS: A few hours of work. A lifetime of freedom.”

Revere, a former stay-at-home mom and erstwhile substitute teacher at Gordon Elementary School in Chesterfield County, was encouraged to interview for the leadership position by the former director of development of project:HOMES when she worked there as an office volunteer.

Revere was intrigued by the position after learning it would allow her to work both with students and older adults.

She started almost immediately after her interview, and the flexibility of the job allowed her to be at home when needed, at the soccer field when needed (she coached) and out building ramps or writing grants or loading the truck when needed.

In an interview, Revere said she is driven by the “tremendous need across our region for wheelchair ramps” and providing opportunities for young people “to do community service in a way that demonstrates clear and positive impact in another individual’s life.”

“The students are able to choose who they build for, and so we frequently will see that a student will build a ramp for an individual who suffers the same chronic condition that a relative does,” she said. “And to see the joy in the older or disabled individual’s face when they’re able to roll out of their home into the sunlight down the ramp, it makes a tremendous emotional impact on the clients and the students.

“And that’s why it is that I love what I do. It’s that connection.”

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