Central Peninsula Health Foundation Director Kathy Gensel, left, updates former Heritage Place Resident Council President MaryNell Larson about the Evening by the River Fundraiser in this undated photo. (Courtesy of Aud Walaszek/Heritage Place)

Central Peninsula Health Foundation Director Kathy Gensel, left, updates former Heritage Place Resident Council President MaryNell Larson about the Evening by the River Fundraiser in this undated photo. (Courtesy of Aud Walaszek/Heritage Place)

Heritage Place gets a new set of wheels

Destination Dignity Bus will be able to accommodate six wheelchairs and fit 10.

Sometime this summer, the folks at Heritage Place will be acquiring a brand new set of wheels to help them get around town. For the past year, the residents of the Soldotna continuing care living facility have been fundraising for the Destination Dignity Bus — a 10-person, handicap-accessible bus that will help residents get around town more easily.

In March, Heritage Place was given a major helping hand in the fundraising efforts thanks to the Central Peninsula Health Foundation’s Evening by the River, an annual fundraiser that took place on March 1 this year. Heritage Place, which serves seniors and those living with disabilities, is part of the Central Peninsula Hospital.

Prior to the Evening by the River, Heritage Place was able to raise about $20,000 for the bus, which had a price tag of about $70,000. Kathy Gensel, the director of the health foundation, said that the goal leading up to the event was to raise $50,000 to cover the remaining cost of the bus. Aud Walaszek, the activities coordinator for Heritage Place, said she was skeptical about that much money being raised in one night — especially after raising $20,000 over the course of a year.

“I’ve been in charge of a lot of fundraisers in my time,” Walaszek said. “I just had no idea how we’d do it.”

Gensel on the other hand, was confident that people in the community would step up to the plate.

Over the course of the evening, which featured sponsorship opportunities, a catered dinner, outcry and silent auctions, the community met and exceeded Gensel’s expectations. All told, more than $90,000 was raised during the Evening by the River, with $51,320 specifically for the Destination Dignity Bus. Gensel said it was the most raised in one night by the health foundation since she took over organizing the annual fundraiser in 2009.

“Sometimes you find a project that means something to a lot of people,” Gensel said. “Besides, we have a very generous community here. We always have.”

The Destination Dignity Bus is being custom-built in North Carolina by Absolute Bus Sales and will be able to accommodate six wheelchairs at a time for a total capacity of 10, including the driver. Walaszek said that the new Destination Dignity Bus will be a major upgrade from their current vehicle: a minivan that can only fit one wheelchair at a time. Heritage Place has a number of residents who are wheelchair-bound, so the increased accessibility will mean more folks can be out in the community at once.

The motto of Heritage Place is “Dignity to all holds the power to heal” and Walaszek said that the freedom to go out and be a part of the community is a major part of fostering the dignity of the residents. The bus will also feature a large viewing glass over the front windshield, allowing passengers to better appreciate the beauty of the Kenai Peninsula as they are driven around town.

Walaszek already has plenty of ideas for using the Destination Dignity Bus and gave as an example the reading program Heritage Place has with the students of the local Soldotna Montessori Charter School. Every month, first, second and third graders from the school come to Heritage Place to pair up with the seniors and read books together. With the addition of the Destination Dignity Bus, the seniors can start visiting their reading buddies at school this fall — something that Walaszek said both the kids and older folks are looking forward to.

As an added treat for the folks at Heritage Place, Walaszek said that the Cedric Conrad, the maintenance supervisor for Heritage Place, flew down to North Carolina Monday night to pick up the bus and will be documenting his road trip back to Soldotna via a GoPro camera so that the residents can experience the journey as well. Along the way, he will be picking up the other project that was funded by Evening by the River: baby boxes that will provide parents in need a safe sleeping space for their babies.

In a brochure given to attendees of the Evening by the River, Heritage Place residents commented on what acquiring the Destination Dignity Bus would mean for them.

“It would be a delight to be a part of nature and elevate our senses, hear the birds, feel the breeze and smell the fresh air,” Mike Moore said.

“Having our own bus would give us a sense of freedom and independence, a feeling of being human,” Flo Hamilton said.

“We could blow this joint and go see the fishing boats and sunsets,” Rita Morrison said.

Walaszek said that Heritage Place will be holding a silent auction in July to raise money for various accessories for the bus, as well as a wrap with the Heritage Place logo. Items up for auction will be on display at Heritage Place on Rockwell Avenue in Soldotna from July 24-31. Anyone interested in donating or bidding on an item can call Walaszek at 907-714-5039.

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