Marty Norton, 53, needed a truck. And not just any truck.
He needed a very specialized truck he could drive with his hands and would lift his wheelchair in and out of the vehicle so he could be better able to do his job at the Pete French Round Barn Visitor Center in Diamond, Oregon.
In 2004, Norton was riding his motorcycle when he struck a deer. As he was picking up his bike, he was hit and dragged 270 yards by a man driving a van. The accident resulted in the loss of his legs above the knees as well as 136 broken bones, a separated aorta, crushed vertebrae and more than three days of straight surgery. He uses prosthetic legs and a wheelchair.
“It was the start of my new life. I get good parking places and I never have to stand in line,” said Norton, in true Norton style. He has a sense of humor and a positive and fun attitude toward life.
Norton participated with the Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) program to identify barriers to employment, needs for accommodations and resources for his job as a cashier with Grocery Outlet in Burns, Oregon.
But then life changed again for Norton, leading to another opportunity to work with VR. Two years ago, his father-in-law, Dick Jenkins, who built the Round Barn Visitor Center at the Pete French State Historical Site Round Barn, died. Norton, his wife, Zina, and his mother-in-law, Patricia Jenkins, had to take over running the Visitor Center.
The visitor center is a hub of activity in rural Oregon. Besides the Round Barn being an historical site, the Visitor Center is sort of a way station for locals and tourists where they stop, get a snack, chat. But working there meant that Norton’s wife, Zina, had to drive 58 miles each way to and from their home in Burns.
Norton had a van, but it was an old 17-person tour van and he used hisprosthetic legs to drive. It was not that safe. His leg could get stuck under the brake pedal and his feet could not feel the gas or brake pedals. He had to guess about the needed pressure on the pedals.
“I could wear my legs to work but end of day I had to take them off. They hurt. So, I couldn’t drive home,” Norton said.
Norton needed a truck to get to work and home, but also to be able to keep the historical Round Barn open and to do the needed ranch work.
Kathy Cook, the Lead VR Counselor for Eastern Oregon got to work. Melanie Whiteaker, Lead Support Worker is part of the VR team that also includes Dee Dee Satran, Branch Manager for Eastern Oregon, and Bambi Bevill, Region 3 Manager. Cook and Whiteaker serve clients in Harney and Grant counties. This work with Marty took a few years, as they worked with Marty to identify his needs with the new employer . There were policy changes to navigate, COVID and other issues to address, which took time.
“Marty was very patient. We really looked at the need and potential employment and longevity and whether it would be a good fit – and it was for him,” Satran said.
Norton’s needs for a special truck were definitely demonstrated. Rural Oregon has rough terrain and maintaining services at the historical Round Barn sometimes required demanding physical labor. Norton and the VR team worked with James Kimsey, owner of Oregon Mobility Solutions of Tigard and Salem. His company provides services throughout Oregon.
“Our goal is to help people become more independent by modifying vehicles to allow wheelchair users and persons with limited mobility access to drive their vehicle,” Kimsey said.
Norton’s situation was unique and Kimsey said he went the extra mile for Norton. He needed a new vehicle outfitted for his particular needs at the Round Barn.
On February 19, Kimsey delivered a 2021 white Dodge Ram 4×4 pickup truck to Norton. It was modified with hand controls and a specialized canopy on the back that allows Norton to open and close the canopy at the push of a button. There’s also a wheelchair lift in back. A crane comes out by the side and picks up his wheelchair and puts it in back of the pickup, so it stays dry inside the truck.
When Norton saw the truck, he cried.
“I cried. I did. I think most of us did. I am getting goose bumps just thinking about it. I was beyond words. It’s not just safer but I can do it and not have to have my legs on. Never in my life has anything like this happened to me. I am so thankful,” he said.
This is what the Vocational Rehabilitation program does.
“We like to break down barriers to employment,” Cook said.
“We are in this industry because we care so much about the people we serve. Many people don’t realize what’s possible and what we can do to make life easier for them. We especially love supporting people by helping them be able to get to and from work, which allows them to live and enjoy life. Marty is one of the most positive and uplifting spirits we’ve met. We’re so happy to support him and we know he’s going to go out and spread his joy to others,” Kimsey said.
The truck gives Marty freedom.
“The freedom – if I need to go to the store, I can roll out to the truck without putting my legs on. Recently, my wife had to go to the hospital. She broke her arm. With this vehicle I could have driven her to the hospital. I can do things now without the half hour to get my legs ready,” he said.
Norton’s success in reaching his employment goal has inspired him to help others who use wheelchairs.
This has also inspired him in one of his favorite hobbies – rock hunting. He gathers agates, obsidian and other rocks where he turns them into beautiful objects for the center’s gift shop.
“I want to bring people in wheelchairs rock hunting. I know places where we can go find rocks and we can do it from a wheelchair. You talk to anyone in a wheelchair and the idea of rock hunting is just not usually there for them. But I can help them find the kind of rocks they want to find. I think there are a lot of people who would like to take a rock home.”
With VR’s help, Marty Norton achieved his employment goal. This rural community also benefits, through inclusive employment centered around individual skills and abilities. The historic Round Barn and Visitor Center will remain available to Oregonians and visitors from around the world. Norton inspires people around him, through the work he does every week, and the VR staff is excited to have been a part of this success story.