January 2, 2015
As he hoists himself into his customized Ford F-150 pickup truck and then activates a crane that folds and lifts his wheelchair into the bed of the vehicle, Kyle Malin is a picture of self-sufficiency. But life indoors wasn’t always so easy for Malin, No. 19 on the San Antonio Rampage Sled Hockey Team. Taking ownership of a custom-designed home in October 2012 changed that. With his dog, Teddy, on his lap, Malin zips on his wheelchair through the kitchen of his custom-designed home in Vintage Oaks near Canyon Lake, and it’s easy to see why he’s is a sled hockey star. He can really move when he’s got room. A home tailored to his needs has made life better for the retired army soldier who lost both his legs because of catastrophic wounds received in Afghanistan on his fourth tour of duty in 2010 and for his wife, Alicia, and their two sons, Kalib and Cy. The Malins’ home project was arranged by Helping A Hero, an 8-year-old Houston-based nonprofit founded by Meredith Iler. The program has awarded more than 100 adapted homes for severely injured soldiers in 22 states, including others in New Braunfels and one under construction in Bandera.
Experts estimate as many as 4,000 severely wounded soldiers are in need of adaptive housing nationwide. About 10 percent of the demand has been met with new homes provided through organizations such as Homes For Our Troops, Helping A Hero, Operation Finally Home, the Gary Sinise Foundation’s Tunnel to Towers Foundation and Building Homes for Heroes. Iler said her organization — through donations, fundraising, business partnerships and programs such as Specially Adapted Housing Grants — provides houses that “fit the disability.” “They’re tweaked for the heroes they are serving,” she said.
Alicia Malin played a role in designing the flow of her family’s home, built by Jimmy Jacobs Homes, making sure doorways, hallways, sidewalks and the pantry were extra wide and that extra cabinet space and a microwave were accessible for her husband. The huge bathroom with a roll-in shower “is the favorite room in the house,” she said. “He’s become more independent with everything,” she said. That’s a common refrain for families in such homes. Alicia Malin called it freedom. Their 3,800-square-foot home in Vintage Oaks is valued at about $650,000. No matter what the final value of the home, Helping A Hero requires that the wounded veterans take a $50,000 mortgage (with some minor variations for upgrades).
Two other wounded warrior families — Scott and Kelly Roberts; Phillips and Natasha Casey and their children — moved into the wooded subdivision right before Thanksgiving into side-by-side Helping A Hero homes built by Chesmar Homes. Chesmar has built eight such homes for Helping A Hero. Builder Drew Snider was the project manager for the two new homes near Canyon Lake. “Accessibility is the No. 1 factor when you build these houses. They have to be able to maneuver and navigate in their own house. The wider hallways allow, if you’re in a wheelchair, to turn and do a complete 360 without hitting a wall. And they also don’t hit their arms on the walls as they spin their wheels, Snider said.Safety is another concern. “You have to think how you’re going to get ramps from the front to the back and how you’re going to get these soldiers out of their house in the event of a fire,” Snider said. The Malins’ home, for example, has four fire escapes.In the Roberts’ home, a dual-sink vanity in the master bathroom has an angled panel covering the plumbing that allows Scott Roberts to roll under it with his wheelchair.
In Houston, a Helping A Hero home customized for a soldier blinded in a shooting accident uses tiles and walls with varied textures to help the owner distinguish different rooms. Smart appliances that talk also help with the daily routine.
Ed and Karen Matayka are waiting for their Helping A Hero home in Bandera to be finished. Its appliances are being arranged so Ed can manage better with the after-effects of his injuries. The Mataykas were both in the Army and deployed together to Afghanistan. He was a staff sergeant; she was a medic. He lost both his legs as a result of a blast while on patrol in an M-ATV light armored, all-terrain military vehicle in July 2010. Ed Matayka needs the sink and dishwasher to be positioned so he can handle dishes with his right arm. A stroke affected his gross motor skills and left him without little use of his left arm. Karen Matayka praised the adapted home program. “It’s less about financial peace of mind and more about knowing Ed is going to have more independence,” Karen Matayka said. “In some hallways, he can’t turn around.” “The common misconception is that the military does this,” Ed Matayka added. “The military doesn’t do this. It’s citizens that are doing this for us.”
The small cluster of warrior families in the Vintage Oaks subdivision is unusual. “There are a lot of wounded warriors in the community,” Natasha Casey said. “That’ll be good for him.”As is the sense of pride of homeownership — and the fact, as Natasha Casey put it, for her husband “to do the laundry now.”
“This is our forever home,” Phillips Casey said. “We’ll raise children in this house, hang diplomas in this house.”