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New Zealand Army helps make mobility in family home possible

Army tradies have combined their skills to make home life a bit easier for a child with muscular dystrophy.

11 May, 2023

Not knowing what was ahead of them, the family of then four, now six, moved in with Adam’s mum while they came to terms with their son Owen’s diagnosis.

Shortly after the move, they bought the house off Adam’s mum, deciding to stay in the area so they had family support.

Now, with the help of the New Zealand Army, that house is undertaking a significant face-lift to make it mobility friendly for Owen. 

Owen, now 5, was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy just before his 3rd birthday, a disease that causes muscle weakness, which gets worse over time. The disease leads to immobility, which sees most children confined to wheelchairs before the age of 12.  

Adam said they had no idea when Owen was born that he had the disease, and it wasn’t until he was 2 and hadn’t learnt to walk yet that red flags were raised.

“Our GP had not seen the condition before. It’s one in 5000 boys roughly that get it, and he was the first case our GP had seen, and he had been there for over a decade.”

Adam, a New Zealand Army soldier, said they started looking into getting the house renovated to be more mobility friendly in 2020, but Covid-19 hampered their efforts. 

The idea took a back seat for a while, and then they decided to try and get one deck and one ramp done in 2022, but getting a builder was close to impossible.

Adam said in 2020 a community facilitator at Linton Military Camp had suggested using the Army trades to get the work done, so he got back in touch with her to see if this might still be a possibility in 2022.

From there, things started to swing into action.

After contracting an architect to design the layout, and getting council consent, the New Zealand Army are now moving through their house in two stages to substantially renovate their home.

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This will include building ramps at the front and back of their home connecting to decks, with the decks being covered in with a veranda.

 Inside the house the bathroom is getting turned into a disability bathroom, all the doorways are being widened and the kitchen and living area are having walls knocked out to turn it into one space, with that space also being expanded.

 The carport will be turned into the laundry, with the current kitchen being extended into the current laundry, which will make it large and spacious, so Owen can move around the kitchen, even when in a wheelchair.

 “The disease, it takes hold pretty quickly.

“We know people who have children with DMD, they are mobile for a while and then all of a sudden they rapidly decline in mobility.

“The parents are left scrambling trying to get ramps and hoists and vans sorted,” Adam said.

By being able to do the work now, Adam said it makes life a little easier, as they know once it’s all complete the house will be a home Owen can move around in, even when he is in a wheelchair.

Adam said he found it fine to talk about Owen’s condition as it helped him accept it and not resist it, but Gemma said it took her a while longer.

“It took me two years of crying a lot. I accept it more now.”

She said having the house started made things easier, as they had heard about some families who faced issues because their house wasn’t equipped to deal with someone with a disability, which wouldn’t be something they would face with Owen.

“We don’t know at what age he will need to go into a wheelchair, but at least now he will be able to move around the house when he does.”

The renovations are set to be completed by the end of 2023.

Adam said having Army personnel there undertaking the work was great as they had been really respectful towards the family and fit in well.

“We are so appreciative of the work they are doing.”

Major Gabrielle Gofton, Chief Instructor of the School of Military Engineering, Land Operations Training Centre, said being able to undertake work like this for the family was rewarding.  Being able to help out another soldier and their whanau demonstrates comradeship and enhances trust that the NZDF will assist their own people in a time of need.

“We train people to be soldiers first and entering the New Zealand Army in any kind of trade, like a carpenter, electrician or a plumber, lends itself to a very varied career. This can include working on a project for a family in need, to heading to a partner nation in the Pacific to help rebuild after natural disasters.”