Lewis County is a remarkable place. Maybe it’s our rural roots or our past experiences rallying together to overcome catastrophe; but people here know how to come together and support one another — especially in a time of need.
It can be easy to forget that these days. If you listen to some folks, it’s all doom and gloom. But when I look around me, here in Lewis County, I see good people working hard to make our community a better place. I see it every day, in a million ways, big and small. Recently, I got to see an especially touching example up close.
Let me tell you about James Fotinos. He’s a big man with a loud voice and an enormous heart, originally from the small town of Prineville, Oregon. Down there, the winters are long and the summers are short. James always dreamed of getting out and moving somewhere new, somewhere better. Finally, six years ago, he had his chance.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t under the best of circumstances. After a 20-year career with the Union Pacific Railroad, James suffered an accident that led to four back surgeries. It was a tough hand to be dealt but James decided to turn a difficult situation into an opportunity; he used his railroad settlement to move to Chehalis and purchase his first home.
It was a much-needed fresh start.
“The most important thing to me in my life was to own my own home,” James said. “I finally succeeded in that.”
And he found more than a home here — he found a community.
“I don’t ever want to leave Chehalis,” he said. “This has been a wonderful place to live; a place I can’t imagine ever leaving.”
That’s not to say that life has been easy. Due to his accident, James manages debilitating pain and often struggles through basic tasks, such as getting dressed or bringing in groceries. Yet, he’s determined to push through and live a full life. He goes to Thorbeckes five days a week, where he exercises in the pool to get his heart pumping and provide some relief from the pain.
“It’s been three years since my last back surgery,” James said. “I keep telling myself that I’m going to win. My outlook has to be positive or otherwise I won’t have a reason to get up and leave my house.”
Fortunately, he has found a strong community to support him in this journey. James sings the praise of those who work in his doctor's office, the staff who provide his care at Providence Centralia Hospital, the checkout clerks at Walmart who brighten his day, the Twin Transit drivers who help him get where he needs to go and the many others in our community who have found ways to help him.
Recently, Eileen Bauman, a Twin Transit driver who often provides transportation for James, noticed him struggling to get up and down his front steps with his walker, sometimes while juggling groceries. Eileen was concerned for James’ safety and was determined to find a way to help. She connected with other drivers who also wanted to help and began researching ramps that the group could purchase. They encountered a roadblock when Eileen learned she would need special permitting for the ramp, but she was determined not to give up.
Her tenacity was rewarded when she connected with Twin Cities Rotary, a local service organization which happens to specialize in this area. They were more than happy to help. Rotary Club members Larry McGee, Anil Puri, Michael Ervin and Sam Wilkins personally constructed a ramp leading up to James’s home, in partnership with Love Inc. When asked about this gift, James replied that it was “a beautiful experience that brought love to my house.”
“I ride LIFTT (Twin Transit’s paratransit service) and I have never seen anyone with such a beautiful ramp,” James said. “Those men from the Rotary Club were some of the most beautiful people I have ever met. I even had a bank branch manager working on my ramp! They spent the day helping me out, joking with each other as they worked, and truly finding joy in helping me.
“Wow — just, wow. They are wonderful people.”
Eileen was blown away by how quickly the ramp went in and the great quality and care with which it was constructed.
These days, James gets in and out of his home easily. He is quick to thank Eileen for recognizing his need and connecting him with people who wanted to help, and he speaks highly of Twin Transit and their amazing staff. “You never know what physical or mental difficulties you may need to deal with in life,” he said. “Twin Transit has been there for me and I am so thankful for their assistance over the years.”
James explained that while it has been difficult to live paycheck to paycheck, his home is his greatest possession and he works extremely hard to take care of it. That’s why he’s so thankful for the love and care that Twin Cities Rotary Club, Twin Transit and Love Inc. have shown him. To some, this project may just look like a ramp, but it’s living proof that wonderful things can be achieved when we all come together. And here in Lewis County, that’s what we do best.
Editor's Note: Andrea Culletto was incorrectly noted as the author of this commentary when it was originally posted.