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Karen Barlow wheels through her newly remodeled Medford kitchen Wednesday. Friends and total strangers came together to remodel Barlow’s home after a combination of health problems left her temporarily confined to a wheelchair. - Jim Craven

'They all did so much'

Wheeling her way across new wood floors in her remodeled Medford kitchen, Karen Barlow smiles broadly as she speaks of the host of folks who helped this recent amputee get rolling again.

"They really put a lot of heart and love in the remodel," says Barlow. "They all did so much. Without them, I wouldn't be at home, and that means everything to me."

Last summer Barlow was an independent businesswoman, teaching computer skills to visually impaired Rogue Valley residents. Legally blind herself, Barlow also served as a voice for the handicapped in local organizations that provide assistance to people with disabilities, such as the Rogue Valley Transportation District and Disability United for Direct Empowerment.

But several serious health problems, including congestive heart failure, kidney failure and the loss of a leg, collided and put Barlow in a wheelchair last winter, says Connie Skillman, Barlow's friend and colleague.

Because her modest, older home was not wheelchair-friendly, Barlow was facing an extended stay in an expensive nursing home without her husband and her two beloved dogs, Skillman says.

"And that would have killed her," she says.

Skillman spearheaded the efforts of friends — and total strangers — who stepped forward to make Barlow's home accessible. What started in February as an effort to make Barlow's kitchen, bathroom and bedroom wheelchair-accessible became a $70,000 home makeover. Walls were removed and doorways were widened to be sure. But Barlow also has a new heating and air-conditioning system, custom cabinets, a roll-in shower, new windows and new flooring in most of the house, thanks to the generosity of area contractors who had never heard of Barlow before reading about her plight in the Mail Tribune, Skillman says.

"These are people right here in our own backyard," she says. "It just gives you so much hope."

Before giving a tour of her kitchen, Barlow asks her daughter, Crystal Neff, to set up a sign listing all the dozens of donors to the "Karen Barlow Accessibility Project." The list is long, and full of unsung heroes.

"I think it's quite wonderful what they've done for my mom and dad," says Neff, as she strips her mother's bed and starts a load of laundry.

Lonny Morgan of Morgan Built Construction was with the project for six solid weeks. Morgan and crews started out widening the kitchen, bath and bedroom doors. The rest of the remodel evolved as workers realized the need was greater than originally anticipated, he says.

Nathan Perry Heating and Air Conditioning of Eagle Point donated a whole house air conditioner and new ducts when it heard the Barlows were paying exorbitant heating bills and realized why, he says.

"Rats had eaten out all the ducts," Morgan says.

Morgan answered the call for help because he knows how it feels to have the community lift you back up when you've been knocked down. In 1988, Morgan's Jacksonville home burned, leaving his family homeless and with only the clothes on their backs, he says.

"I was there for a solid three weeks," he says. "I got a dump trailer donated for a couple days. My wife loaded 15 yards of remodel garbage."

Ripping up the old carpet and installing hardwood floors made all the difference in Barlow's ability to navigate throughout her home. She can get her wheelchair in and out of doors and even into the new roll-in shower. The new kitchen cabinets are wonderful, but Barlow asked that some of them remain accessible only if she's standing. Barlow wanted her home to be a mixture of handicapped-accessible, but also challenging.

"I want to keep moving," she says. "Otherwise you rest and get lazy. I will walk again. I've got my prosthetic leg."

Barlow's determination to overcome any obstacle is inspirational, says Skillman.

"The house has given her the opportunity to get back to work," says Skillman. "(Karen) is an inspiration in my life. She makes my small daily challenges almost embarrassing."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.

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