Strangers connect with Schaumburg family through Daily Herald

  • Patrick Kunzer/pkunzer@dailyherald.comWith his multiple disabilities, James Fulkerson can't swallow. So parents Stacy and Jeff Fulkerson use a plastic tube to suction fluids from the boy's throat and nose as frequently as 20 times in an hour.

    Patrick Kunzer/pkunzer@dailyherald.comWith his multiple disabilities, James Fulkerson can't swallow. So parents Stacy and Jeff Fulkerson use a plastic tube to suction fluids from the boy's throat and nose as frequently as 20 times in an hour.

Updated 10/9/2015 11:07 AM

As part of their relentless efforts to build a better life for their young son with severe disabilities, Stacy and Jeff Fulkerson of Schaumburg told James' story in a column in the Daily Herald.

The Fulkersons had entered a contest in which the prize was something they desperately needed -- a van equipped to handle a wheelchair. They didn't win, but they didn't complain.


"You read these stories and you're like, 'Oh, wow! They really need it. I should vote for them,'" Stacy Fulkerson remembers thinking after reading other contest entries. "There's always someone worse off than you. Be grateful for what you have and who you know."

They knew many people who wanted to help. Friends and family organized a fundraiser that eventually paid for the Fulkersons' new van.

Consultant Steve Martin of Mobility Works in Villa Park worked with the family to design the van, which cost about $47,000. A national auto dealership specializing in vehicles for people with disabilities, Mobility Works contributed to the Fulkersons' fundraiser.

Because the family shared James' story in the Daily Herald, the family also made connections with others throughout the suburbs.

"Once the article ran, we had an influx of people sending us checks and letters," Stacy Fulkerson said. Some strangers sent inspirational and religious books.

One donation came from a stranger whose address was similar to their own, remembers the mom, who walked across the street and thanked that neighbor, whom she otherwise might never have met.

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"Your article stirred up a lot of love and support from people I didn't even know," Fulkerson told the Daily Herald.

Those readers donated money to cover co-payments, catheters and more-comfortable suction tubes that insurance doesn't cover. Readers also gained some perspective from learning about James and his parents.

Some contacted the newspaper to comment about the good feeling they got simply by reading about the Fulkerson's constant efforts and undying love for their son.

James is now in kindergarten and the family continues to appreciate the kindness of strangers.

In September, the Daily Herald featured a story about the family's new state-of-the-art bathroom designed to meet James' needs. It was built by Oak Tree Construction Services in Schaumburg after owners Donna and Mike Drew shared the Fulkersons' story with the Greater Chicagoland chapter of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry. The Drews nominated the family for a "NARIGC to the Rescue" project, and this time, the Fulkersons won.

This is an truncated version of Burt Constable's first column on the Fulkersons, which ran March 17, 2013.

Only 14 when he was paralyzed playing football, Steve Herbst of Palatine learned how to drive using mechanical controls for his hands.


"I've been using them for 25 years. That's the only way I've ever driven," says Herbst, who would drive to his job as a manager in technology for Allstate Insurance, to meetings of community organizations he supports, to frequent practices for several sports teams he coaches, and who would chauffeur around his twins, Jack and Grace.

Now 46, Herbst says he recently lost the strength needed to man the hand controls on his 2004 Toyota Sienna.

"It gets insane: the schedule, the suburbs, the whole deal. If I can't drive, it's difficult," says Herbst. "I need a new minivan."

Herbst is one of hundreds of contestants vying to be declared "Local Heroes" during National Mobility Month and win a vehicle that gives freedom to people with disabilities. Picking winners across the United States and Canada is not easy.

"Do you want to be a judge?" jokes Dave Hubbard, executive director and CEO of the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association, which will give away three wheelchair-accessible vehicles at the end of May. Local Heroes are defined as people who volunteer, educate, advocate, achieve or persevere.

Finalists will be limited to the top 5 percent of vote-getters in the online contest at, which concludes on May 10. A panel of health care experts will select three winners of the vehicles, valued at a minimum of $40,000 each.

Last year's inaugural contest drew 1,700 applicants, 1.2 million votes and 2.6 million website visitors.

Without a van equipped for a wheelchair, Stacy and Jeff Fulkerson of Schaumburg must fit their 3-year-old son, James, into a rear-facing car seat in their 2008 Dodge Caliber. James suffered a stroke in utero and was born with severe cerebral palsy and other ailments. He eats through a tube in his abdomen, suffers seizures and can't swallow, which means that his mouth needs to be suctioned often to keep him from choking.

"You find me pulling over often," Stacy says, explaining how much easier it would be to monitor and suction her son if he were sitting in his wheelchair in an accessible minivan.

Making a car suitable for a disabled adult might be as simple as adding a few hundred dollars worth of hand controls, says Hubbard, whose not-for-profit NMEDA represents about 600 dealers with a goal of "expanding mobility options for people with disabilities." A minivan with a wheelchair ramp starts at about $40,000 and making those vehicles suitable for drivers with disabilities can more than double the cost, he adds.

"One of the heartbreaks is that many of the people who need our vehicles can't afford them," Hubbard says. While the auto industry does not keep statistics on the aftermarket changes to vehicles, Hubbard estimates that 14,000 to 15,000 new minivans are outfitted each year and maybe three times as many older vehicles are modified. About 18 million people in Canada and the United States have mobility issues.

While only three contest entrants will win vehicles, Hubbard says last year's contest raised attention that allowed a bit of unexpected happiness when several other people were able to raise the funds needed to buy vehicles that allowed them to be mobile.

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