Bathed in joy: Disabled veteran grateful for volunteers, donations to make his home accessible

By SARAH EINSELEN | Gainesville Daily Register, Texas | Published: September 15, 2018

GAINESVILLE, Texas (Tribune News Service) — Kent Floerke, 82, could tell you dozens of stories from his military service and his career as an educator and counselor. He'll talk about how he became a member of the U.S. Olympic team in 1964 and how he and his wife, Sandra, moved some 35 times throughout his career before landing in their current home in 1997.

But this week, his story is about a crew of volunteers who have remodeled his home to allow his wheelchair to fit through the doors and into a newly renovated and wheelchair-accessible bathroom.

"We have been in tears," Kent said Friday. "I've got tears in my eyes right now. They went ahead and have gone beyond."

Volunteers from Home Depot and a few other organizations pooled their resources to renovate parts of the Floerkes' house to allow Kent to use his wheelchair. Home Depot workers and others spent hours this week on the couple's master bathroom and two doorways that were almost too narrow for Kent's wheelchair. On Saturday, Sept. 15, the volunteers plan to put the finishing touches on their work.

Double pneumonia and a bout with sepsis put Kent in intensive care in 2014. He moved from there to a nursing home and then into physical therapy.

"I was flat on my back," Floerke recalled. "I would not even necessarily get out of bed without a lift."

Therapy helped him regain a little mobility. Still, he couldn't fit his wheelchair through the couple's bathroom door, and a frame they hoped would allow him to move from a walker into their bathtub didn't work for them. For the last couple of years, he's relied on sponge baths and his wife's help, but Sandra, 77, is losing her sight and hearing.

When Cooke County Veterans Services Officer Tim Cortes found out, he sprang to action. He contacted the Home Depot store in Gainesville, according to store manager Adrienne Shouse. The chain has a charitable program for veterans that often provides materials and volunteers to add ramps or clean up veterans' yards. Cortes worked with the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post to apply for a Home Depot grant to renovate a portion of the Floerkes' home.

The Home Depot Foundation eventually approved $8,000 for materials and equipment. Operation Bravo Dogs provided volunteer effort and the city of Gainesville offered to haul away trash and process the relevant city permits without charge, according to Cortes.

Plans were to redo the bathroom and widen three doors, two of which had grooves in the doorjambs from Kent squeezing his wheelchair through. Steve Vanderbol of the Tattered Flag Project stripped the bathroom down to studs and insulation, according to Shouse and Kent Floerke. Then on Wednesday, volunteers from Home Depot locations across North Texas descended on the home.

"Normally Home Depot doesn't go to this extent," Shouse said. But Kent "had an extenuating circumstance. He couldn't take a shower."

Home Depot employees from the stores in Gainesville, Denton, Sherman, Wichita Falls, McKinney and Frisco have helped out, according to Denton store manager Denise Baxter. Workers at Sandman Plumbing in Lindsay responded to Cortes' "Hail Mary" call for help when an unexpected plumbing issue arose, volunteering their time and expertise.

All together, the volunteers have "provided tremendous access that I needed as a physically handicapped person," Kent Floerke said. "That was a gift."

And whenever the Home Depot crew found themselves with a little downtime, they came up with another way to help.

Sandra Floerke asked for a privacy wall to separate the window and the new roll-in shower, so they built one. And the main hallway had been covered in scribbles from the Floerkes' grandchildren, some of whom Sandra cares for at their home. "We said, you just want us to paint over this, brighten it up?" Shouse said.

Sandra consented. But what she won't know until Saturday is that the volunteers photographed the children's drawings and will present framed prints of them to decorate the hallway again.

It's one of many surprises the crew has planned for the couple, Shouse said.

The project is "definitely beyond the scope of anything we've done," she added.

"We have our moments and he's cried a lot. It's so wonderful."

Already, the Floerkes can hardly express how grateful they are.

"I couldn't believe how many people came," Sandra said. She described "this incredible joy" she has felt as the project was carried out.

Kent has tried to learn the name of each of the 40-odd volunteers involved so he can thank them personally.

"They have taken our home and made it for the first time tremendously accessible," Kent said.


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