Local builder rallies the community to help a young man navigate his life

SALINAS — Although what happened is clear, this is the kind of story that defies explanation. No one saw it coming.

In 2005, Joseph Escalante and his friend, in their early 20s, were enjoying their youth and their vacation as they lay in the sand on a beach in Mexico, when three cars, engaged in a race along the shoreline, ran them over. Escalante’s friend was killed instantly. Escalante was critically injured but survived to live a completely different quality of life.

“Parts of Joseph’s brain were irreparably damaged,” said physical therapist John Farahmand of Balance Physical Therapy, who has worked with Escalante ever since. “As a result, he can no longer sense the signals his brain is supposed to send out to the body to perform basic functions like swallowing or sensing hunger. Nor is he able to stand or walk or articulate a clear speech pattern.”

In the ensuing 17 years, Escalante has lived with his mother, Sandy Nyland, in her modest Salinas home. Before the incident, the space suited her life just fine. Yet it was completely ill-equipped to house her son and his equipment, or enable him to navigate his environment.

“The challenge in our home,” said Nyland, “was that it was a small space for Joseph and his needs, which took away his independence in doing simple things, like going to the refrigerator or using the microwave.”

John Lewis has always believed, if you change your space, you can change your life. It is the premise on which he’s built his company, Lewis Builders, whose foundation is a mission to create custom home designs tailored to suit and support each client’s lifestyle. A certified Aging in Place specialist, Lewis and his team −− in addition to lifestyle renovations and new home design-builds −− have served dozens of aging clients on the Peninsula, enabling them to continue to live in their homes, as their needs and capacities have changed.

Lewis’ focus on quality of life is what inspired his company’s “Change Your Life, Change Your Space Initiative,” which spearheads community-wide projects on behalf of families in need, who might benefit from improvement in accessibility and function within their home.

“As a team, we wanted to find a way to give back to our community,” he said, “by finding someone in need, who didn’t have the means to make modifications to their home, on their own.”

When Lewis reached out to his physical therapist, John Farahmand, for a recommendation of someone in need of change, Farahmand suggested he consider changing Joseph Escalante’s space −− and life.

“I sent John a video introducing Sandy and Joseph,” said Farahmand, “saying he would be the perfect recipient of John’s ‘Change Your Life, Change Your Space Initiative.’ When John saw the video, he said, ‘This is our guy.’ I started sobbing. I contributed $5,000 to their capital campaign, and the community really got behind the project.”

Compassion and construction

Lewis got into the design-build business, with a focus on changing lives by changing their spaces, after suffering four knee surgeries, when his own home wasn’t set up for ease of accessibility and navigating the space to support his needs.

“I was on my own then, losing both my independence,” he said, “and my dignity, so I have a lot of empathy for people in this position. I’ve always felt passionate about making spaces not look institutional in their ADA compliance, but beautiful, welcoming, and accessible.”

The Lewis Builders team began their space-renovation project by meeting with Escalante and Nyland to study their home and identify their most pressing needs. Instead of demolishing and reconfiguring their existing living space, says Lewis, which would have been disruptive for them, they decided to build a new addition to the house, which would become Escalante’s domain.

“Joseph has considerable challenges,” said Lewis, “but he’s not a child. He’s a grown man, so it was important to instill function and dignity into his life. We built an oversized bedroom suite with a fully accessible bathroom-wet room, plus a room in which to receive friends.”

In addition to Escalante’s new living space, the construction team, comprised of Lewis Builders staff and community volunteers, updated the landscaping around the property, and built two wheelchair ramps, replacing a dilapidated wood ramp in front with a cement ramp, plus another in fresh wood out back, so Escalante can wheel outside and enjoy the fresh air in his backyard garden. All this built with the help of donations from Lewis Builders, friends, trade partners and members of the local community.

“In redesigning and remodeling Joseph’s space,” said Lewis, “we wanted him to know we see him. He’s not forgotten. It’s about his dignity and the quality of his life. It’s about helping him to hold onto his sense of life’s value and even hold onto hope.”

In addition to changing his life, says Lewis, it has been life-changing for his team to be able to improve the quality of Escalante’s daily life. Knowing there are many needs throughout the community, he appreciates the generous community effort that enabled them to make a huge impact on one family’s life. So far.

“I love the design of Joseph’s space,” said his mom. “When I saw it, and he saw that there’s a poker table he can enjoy with friends, well, it’s just an awesome place for a guy to have that kind of independence and more say over his space and his being.”

Contributed by local news sources

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