Tess Kessinger, 48, a C5 quad, has been a Habitat homeowner since 2017. After being injured in 2006, she rehabbed at Frazier Rehab Institute in Louisville, Kentucky. She was one of the first subjects to do treadmill work as part of Susan Harkema’s epidural stimulation research. “It really helped me — muscle tone, weight, increased lung capacity,” she says. “The group I was in went on to be like a second family. Most of my meaningful relationships have come out of my meeting people at Frazier. They finally hired me in 2013 because I refused to go away.”
At first, following her injury, she had to live with her parents on their farm in Palmyra, Indiana, located just north of Louisville, in a modified living room with bathroom. “I was managing OK but didn’t want to live with my parents or in a nursing home. I always had the will to be independent but not the way.”
Then, in 2015, someone told her mother that Habitat was open to building homes for people with disabilities. She applied to the nearest Habitat chapter in New Albany, Indiana, and was accepted.
“For my sweat equity I contacted restaurants and helped set up food for catered fundraising events, and food, snacks and soft drinks for the builders,” says Kessinger. “The University of Louisville and Frazier staff put groups together to help volunteers on my build. I had 8 or 10 build dates with different volunteer groups. My dad did over 300 hours of sweat equity. He’s a licensed electrician, but he and two or three others were the core group swinging hammers and doing whatever had to be done.”
The state vocational rehabilitation department also helped with certain necessities. “I love my shower, my favorite room, all tile,” she says. “Voc Rehab suggested a certain fan. It sucks all the moisture out of the bathroom.” And then there’s a feature straight out of her farm background — sliding barn doors. “I have barn doors on all of the rooms. Track doors. They are super light. Even the dog knows how to use them. She will use her nose to open the door and come into the bathroom.”
The open floor plan is inviting, especially for a power chair user. “When you come in the front door, you can see the door on the other side of the house. No walls to get in the way of having multiple visitors over. To accommodate my van lift, they gave me an oversized lot with a large carport,” she says.
Kessinger’s mortgage payments for all this are just $497 a month. They are so low because they’re spread out over a 40-year mortgage at zero percent interest. “I would never be able to rent even a small apartment for $500.”
All in all, Kessinger is approaching her dream of complete independence. Now all she needs is for the state of Indiana to provide adequate attendant care. “I thought it would be easier — there are 47 state licensed home care agencies, but only seven with skilled nursing and only one could take me, and they require me to have full-time care, which I don’t need and they can’t fill,” she says. “It would cost the state less if I had part-time attendants, but when I talk to the Medicaid people, they just say ‘we feel for you.’”
For now, to get by, her mom stays with her two nights per week, and on weekends she goes home to the family farm. But the upside prevails: “I feel like I’m more part of a community now,” she says. “People come to help from down the street. You don’t always get that out on a farm.”
Image credit: Photo by Author