Back on track
BROOKINGS — Hannah Rarick eases the joy stick with her right hand to steer the tractor-like chair she’s in through the Harris Beach sands toward the lapping Pacific Ocean.
“I haven’t been this close to the ocean since my accident,” says Rarick, 34, of Talent.
She reaches the water’s edge and hits another button so the track chair raises her body erect, with braces holding her safely atop her whithered and lifeless legs.
Rarick breathes deeply, and smiles a big toothy grin that has long been one of her trademarks, even when in her conventional wheelchair.
“It’s really refreshing to feel the mist on my face and smell the ocean smells,” she says. “I don’t feel left out at the end of the pavement.”
Rarick is one of the latest, but certainly not the last, person with physical challenges to be introduced or reacquainted to the outdoors thanks to a growing Medford-based nonprofit that’s hell-bent on keeping these interactions viable.
Formed four years ago, David’s Chair has a fleet of five electric traction-chairs it lends out for free so people like Rarick don’t lose touch with nature.
Since its inception, more than 300 people have used the chairs for everything from forays into the snow at Union Creek to fishing in the Rogue River and even golf outings on a special chair that lets those without use of their legs play a round.
“Some of the people have used them 20 times,” says Steve Furst, the organization’s co-founder and chief executive officer.
The bare-bones organization has its main fundraiser this weekend to bolster a budget nudging $100,000 to add or replace track chairs that run as much as $20,000 but are not covered by most insurance plans for those who need them.
The organization’s annual Casino Royale dinner and auction fundraiser is set for Saturday afternoon and evening at The Expo, 1 Peninger Road, Central Point. Tickets cost $25 apiece and are available at www.davidschair.org.
The money is earmarked for replacing some worn-out chairs, fixing others and travel by volunteers to deliver the chairs to places like Harris Beach for users like Rarick, Furst says.
“Even with my regular chair, getting up to the water is nonexistent,” Rarick says.
Rarick shares the legacy of a former Medford man who refused to allow a debilitating disease to keep him from enjoying the outdoors.
The group is named after its founder David Hartrick, lifelong and passionate hunter and angler who worked as a care provider in Medford when he was diagnosed with ALS in January 2017.
The condition known as Lou Gerhig’s Disease swept through him quickly, and within a few months left him bound to a conventional wheelchair whose limitations created a wall between Hartrick and the woods and waters he loved.
Furst, a Medford police sergeant, was friends with Hartrick when they attended Eagle Point High School in the 1980s.
Furst and other friends learned about the Action Track Chair, whose tractor-like tracks and joystick controls allow its driver to maneuver over snow, sand, slick grass, water and all sorts of other terrains regular chairs can’t handle.
At about $20,000, the chairs are less expensive than some conventional chairs covered by medical insurance, but the Action Track Chair is not covered, Furst says.
So Furst and others started spitballing ways to raise money for Hartrick, and after a failed rummage sale, the groups realized they needed to think bigger and beyond Hartrick.
They formed David’s Chair as a nonprofit to raise money not just for Hartrick but so others with spinal-cord injuries or disabling illnesses could enjoy the outdoors for free.
They raised $27,000 at an auction/poker tournament in 2017, enough to buy David’s chair as well as a kid-sized chair. The chairs are loaned out, creating the opportunity for many to use them.
Hartrick received his chair later that summer, allowing him to reconnect to places like sandy beaches near Brookings, the Rogue River’s Natural Bridge near Union Creek and the forests near Bend.
But Hartrick’s ALS was advancing rapidly and by the following fall he was too weak to use it, Furst says.
Though Hartrick died that following January, Furst and others pushed to have David’s Chair reach others in the community who would benefit from it.
“A lot of people don’t have the means to get this chair,” Furst says. “Some do but it’s sitting in their garage for nine months. What we’re doing is getting this chair to as many people who want to use it as possible, for free.”
Rarick broke her back in a motorcycle accident more than three years ago. After that, the beach seemed like a distant part of her past.
“All throughout my 20s, I traveled and camped on beaches,” Rarick says. “I would walk for miles on the sand.”
She learned of David’s Chair about a month after her paralysis, and had her first jaunt less than a year later in the snow, Rarick says.
Since then, she’s taken her regular chair on beaches with the help of friends, but the thin wheels invariably bogged down in the sand.
This time, however, she was able to rise to a vertical position and power up Harris Beach just above the water line.
“It’s a real rush to cruise across the snow or sand at walking speed,” she says.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.