Volunteers rally to help woman paralyzed in O'Hare shelter collapse
Tony Barajas paused to consider why he volunteered his drywall skills to help make a house accessible for a stranger, a Lake County woman who was paralyzed when an O'Hare International Airport pedestrian shelter collapsed on her during a storm last summer.
"I believe a lot in karma," said Barajas, of Elgin. "I believe if you do good, everything will be good for you beyond this life. And, you know, I love to volunteer."
Work to refurbish the Vernon Hills house for 24-year-old Tierney Darden has been a labor of love for volunteers ranging from those who've known her since childhood or from a high school dance team to construction trade professionals and strangers such as Barajas, who made 60-mile round-trips to help.
At least 50 volunteers have combined to spend an estimated 1,000 hours helping Darden since October, said designer Anita Galatte of Vernon Hills, who's coordinated the project that's nearly completed.
"I think that Vernon Hills has morals and values that align with each other, and the people that live here want the same things for each other," Galatte said. "They want happiness for everybody's family. So, when something happens, people gather 'round."
Darden was a dancer and college student who was living in Mundelein when she was injured in August. She is now undergoing physical therapy for a severed spinal cord and other injuries that have left her paralyzed from the waist down.
Longtime friend and project volunteer Tara Jennings, 26, of Vernon Hills, said she's been impressed by the number of volunteers who don't know Darden or her family, but have rallied to help.
"Whether they know her or don't know her, I think we're lucky to live in a community that's so tight-knit," she said during a break in work on a recent Saturday morning. "And there are people who don't have kids her age or the age of other kids in Tierney's family, but they still come out and help because they know that the community would be there for them if something happened."
Professionals have donated plumbing, drywall, tile, concrete, and electrical services, with painting and less technical work going to the other volunteers. Galatte said some material delivery delays, the winter holidays and volunteer availability have led to the project taking about three months longer than a standard job.
The finished product will be a house that features accessibility in many subtle ways, from lifts installed under the kitchen sink and range that can be raised or lowered depending on who's using them, to a renovated bathroom that connects seamlessly to a closet without doors for easy access to clothing. There also are electric lifts for upstairs and downstairs wheelchair access.
"The perfect example is the concrete ramp up front," said Galatte, a Darden family friend. "By the time that's all finished, no one will know from the street her home has a ramp until you walk up to it."
Two areas of the house are customized for Darden's physical and emotional health. One is a bright, open room at the front that will be her art studio, and the other is a downstairs workout facility.
"I think that (studio) is really good for her mental health. But for her physical health, her workout room in the basement, that's really focused all for her," Jennings said. "She'll have the proper equipment."
David Darden, who purchased the house, expressed gratitude that volunteers are making it wheelchair-accessible so his daughter no longer will need to live in a hotel near the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago location in Wheeling while she's in three-hour rehabilitation sessions five days a week. Their current house in Mundelein doesn't meet her needs, he said.
"She's working hard to recover," said David Darden, who will live in the house with Tierney. "She's working hard to keep spirits up and she's really anxious to move into the house."
Galatte said it's hoped the Dardens will move in by month's end.
Tierney Darden visited the house in October, but not since then out of concern that dirt from construction debris would be detrimental to her health, Galatte said.
She was not made available for comment by her personal-injury attorneys due to a negligence lawsuit filed in Cook County circuit court in August against the Chicago Department of Aviation and the city of Chicago.
Darden had just returned home from Minnesota and was waiting at the shelter for a bus with her mother and sister near Terminal 2 at the O'Hare lower street level when the storm rolled through the Chicago area about 2:40 p.m. Aug. 2, according to the complaint.
It's alleged in the suit the pedestrian shelter was visibly rusted, decaying and inadequately anchored to the ground. The lawsuit, which seeks more than $50,000 in damages, claims the structure became loose and fell on the women. Darden's mother, Trudy Darden, and sister, Tayah Minniefield, suffered minor injuries, the lawsuit said.
Chicago Department of Aviation spokesman Owen Kilmer declined to address the complaint. The city has denied the accusations in court documents.
As for the volunteers who have pitched in to renovate Darden's house, they hope their effort has provided the family with more time to focus on her recovery instead of worrying about future living needs.
"No family can just handle that themselves," said Vernon Hills resident Cindy Blair, a volunteer who's known Darden since her youngest daughter started dancing at the same studio about 20 years ago.
Steven Spinell, a Vernon Hills resident and executive at the Kinzie Group development firm, has lent his expertise to the project. He helped secure donated building materials and made sure Americans With Disabilities Act guidelines were followed so the structure is compliant for Darden.
"This isn't just like, 'Oh, listen, I've got a hole in my roof.' This is a life-changing event that happened for these people," said Spinell, who became familiar with the Dardens through his children. "And I think we're all empathetic toward that."