Prime Living: Methodist ministry helps Aiken's elderly keep rolling

Mar. 15—Aiken County, as a magnet for retirees, has an abundance of wheelchair ramps, and St. John's United Methodist Church has had a direct role in building hundreds of them.

Jack Meeks Memorial Wheelchair Ramp Ministry helps provide free ramps for needy neighbors, largely through the congregation's financial support.

The ministry's namesake, "Jackie," as he was known to his wife, Brenda Meeks, died of lung cancer in 2007, but local residents such as Dave Buchanan, Kevin Tempel and Dan Fabrick keep the tradition going dozens of times each year.

"I really look forward to it," said Graniteville resident Ben Trame, who is part of the volunteer corps. Trame, at age 90, does not need a wheelchair, but he can wield power tools with enough skill to have helped several of his neighbors keep rolling for as long as possible.

"We just get along good and everything. There are generally about four or five of us — sometimes 12," he said, recalling that one recent ramp project was completed in one hour and 45 minutes.

"We just try not to waste any time, because it does get kind of cold out there. I just really enjoy working with them guys."

Meeks "was really a good guy," Trame recalled.

Meeks' funeral had ramp volunteers as the pallbearers, including such regulars as Ken Perrine and Bob Prather, and the Saturday crew now includes such names as Steve Lathrop (the coordinator), Tom Thome, Virgil Sauls, Larry Greene, Mike Gallagher and Cole Kring.

Kring at 16, may be the youngest of the 2023 bunch. A sophomore at Aiken Scholars Academy, he noted that the criteria for giving Saturday help are fairly simple.

"The only skills you need are knowledge on how to use power tools ... You have to be kind of crafty. You have to be able to follow instructions," he said.

Lathrop, an Air Force veteran with a private-sector background in contract management, said the ministry depends on "people who can use a screwdriver" and currently has about 15 active volunteers.

Several have backgrounds in technical and engineering fields. At least two are experienced in construction management, "and then there's people like me, which is basically business," he said.

A typical year's worth of ramps would total "anywhere between 30 and 35," he said. "Last year, we did 46."

The COVID-19 response did slow down progress "just a little bit," but work takes place outside, so projects never ground to a halt, he added.

The ministry's start was probably around 1998, Lathrop said, "but that was only doing four or five a year, for people in the church."

Meeks' ongoing efforts bore fruit, and the ministry was into much higher gear by 2002-03, with possibly 15-20 ramps per year. About 20 years later, the ministry's total count has reached "something over 400" since the start, in Lathrop's estimation.

There is no slow season and the requests never stop, he added. "Right now, I've got about 12 on my list of ramps that we're going to be doing, and in the last three or four years, I've never got it down to zero."

Word has spread, and the ministry now works in harmony with hospitals, hospice agencies and other organizations. "It's a lot of individuals that just need a ramp, and ... they'll either call the church, or if they know my number, they'll call me directly," Lathrop said.

One huge event on the ministry's annual calendar is a golf tournament to raise money for projects. This year's event is set for May 19 at Houndslake Country Club.

The average ramp, as described in the promotional material, requires about $1,000 worth of pressure-treated lumber, fasteners and other material. Ramps are provided without regard to financial capability. For more information, call 803-648-6891.