A Deeper Dive with Marlene: Artist & Animal Advocate

This blog post is a deeper-dive to Marlene’s story, which originally featured in our 2017 Impact Report. Madiken Helsel, the co-author of this post, is a Rebuild Upstate volunteer who helps Rebuild Upstate share stories of homeowners served.

Just talking to Marlene on the phone, I knew our visit was going to be full of energy — and it was! Marlene was waiting for us at the door when we got there. Her house was easy to spot because of the beautiful ADA-compliant ramp out front, slightly hidden behind blooming azaleas. We didn’t actually talk about her ramp and experience with Rebuild Upstate for quite a while, though, because she had so much to so many positive experiences in her life that she wanted to share.

Marlene was born with spina bifida, but has been able to lead a relatively independent life living on her own. However, she has not been able to walk since experiencing complications with the disease 35 years ago and now uses a wheelchair, putting her on disability. Fortunately, she is a skilled commercial artist with a studio in her home that overlooks her beautiful backyard covered with azaleas of all colors and various other plants. From this studio, she creates wonderful paintings (which she showed us) and has also written 10 historical novels and fashioned many sculptures.

She has an incredibly vivid memory and recalled trips she made with her parents and younger sister to the beach and mountains, and in particular one trip to Nantucket Island in 1952. She remembered everything that was going on during that time period including the “exile” of Charlie Chaplin, and the disagreements between General MacArthur and Harry Truman.

She has lived in her current home since 1976. Without a ramp, she was not able to leave her house on her own. Even when she did have two people there to assist her with a trip out and about, it was a pretty dangerous feat getting her back into her house by carrying her up her front steps while in her wheelchair. The ramp makes that process infinitely easier.

Rebuild Upstate volunteers spent a day building Marlene a wheelchair ramp. Marlene was so touched just by watching the volunteers build her ramp because it was a cold, rainy December day when they volunteered. She knew how much comfort they were sacrificing for her and is so incredibly grateful. The ramp has had a profound impact on her quality of life. In her words, Marlene explains how.

“If I became seriously ill or injured, I could more easily be moved to a hospital. Also, it is no trouble now for others taking me out for lunch or a bit of entertainment anymore. I need some company with others and I need to get out again and experience life more fully. Now, I can do so without feeling guilty that it is a hardship for those who come for me. In time, I may be able to go out in my yard again, which I have longed to do for a long time.

Marlene wants others to know about the good things Rebuild Upstate does. “Rebuild Upstate does quality work for people like myself who are handicapped, homebound, who cannot do this work for themselves and would be unable to pay others to do it. This goes beyond home improvement in the usual sense. It can help keep people out of nursing homes by providing important safety measures like the ramp they built for me. In my case, this helps me have fellowship with others who can easily come pick me up. I can be part of life outside again. This is a comfort to their families and friends who often live in grave concern for those who are alone and disabled.”

Marlene’s positive attitude radiates to everyone she speaks to. Marlene is looking forward to having more time to pursue her artwork and may even begin selling her art online on her website, merckworks.com. As an animal lover and owner of her cat, Martha, she does everything she can to give back to the community and the humane society and aims to stay as involved as she can. She has so much to live for and wants to be able to share her joy and hope in life with others.

To support the work Rebuild Upstate does for homeowners like Marlene, you can volunteer or donate.