AMBUCS' area chapters do whatever they can to give the disabled the gift of mobility
MAHOMET — Getting in and out of her home used to be quite an ordeal for Ruth Funsch.
Since she has congestive heart failure and diabetes, she often needs to take her four-wheel, motorized cart along with her to the places she goes, says Funsch, 83, of Mahomet. But she couldn't get the cart down her front or back steps without taking it apart, and that's not a job she and her daughter could manage.
Last fall, the Greater Champaign County AMBUCS came to her rescue and built a ramp outside her home.
The group covered the cost through its fundraising, and a crew of its members provided the volunteer labor.
"I love it," Funsch says. "At least I get outside now when I want to."
Ray Griest, the Champaign County club's ramp-building leader, says he gathers a crew of AMBUCS volunteers to build ramps on Sunday mornings.
"It is wonderful to be in church," he says, "but it's wonderful to be doing something for somebody else. That's also good. It's just wonderful that we can change somebody's life in one way or another to make it better."
Two members of the Greater Champaign County AMBUCS are in wheelchairs themselves and can't help with labor for projects like these, but they help with the fundraising, Griest says.
"There is room for everybody to do something," he adds.
February is national visibility month for AMBUCS, a charitable service organization that got its start in 1922 as the American Business Club.
Its chapters in Champaign County, Danville and elsewhere focus on projects that help create mobility for people with disabilities.
The ramp at Funsch's home was one of nine built last year by this AMBUCS chapter, and one of more than 300 club members have built over the past two decades, says Sally Denhart, chapter secretary.
The Champaign County chapter also provides therapeutic tricycles called "AmTrykes" for children and veterans, and scholarships to physical therapy students.
And it raises money to help the Urbana Park District maintain AMBUCS Park, a 22-acre park in the 1100 block of East University Avenue; a $50,000 donation will help fund a $200,000-plus upgrade for that park this year, says Ellen Kirsanoff, park district development manager.
That will include a new playground to replace one about two decades old and past its useful life, as well as accessibility improvements to park restrooms, she says.
Also included will be upgrades to some of the pathways to the playground and ball field that is heavily used by families for the Tom Jones Challenger League, sponsored by the C-U Kiwanis, in which children with physical and mental challenges are teamed up with volunteers who help them play baseball, Kirsanoff says.
The plan is to start work in the summer and have the work done in time for the annual AMBUCS Scarecrow Festival at the park in September, she says.
The Greater Champaign County chapter is one of two AMBUCS clubs in Champaign County.
Ed Clancy, one of the four remaining members of the Champaign-Urbana AMBUCS, says that now-small chapter got its start in the 1930s, did a lot of fundraising and service projects for the local community and established the Greater Champaign County chapter as the lead club.
"We were the main club here back in the '30s," he recalls, "but like all social service clubs, we kind of diminished. We all got gray hair."
But they're still meeting on Tuesdays for lunch, Clancy says. And the Champaign-Urbana club still sponsors a Challenger League team and supports the Champaign County club's fundraising activities.
Griest, who was chosen national AMBUC of the year in 2010 not only for heading up ramp-building but for chairing his chapter's major annual fundraiser, says he enjoys it all.
"I've worked nights for 33 years and I enjoy the public contact," he says.
His wife and fellow club member, Deb Griest, is also district governor for the AMBUCS East Central Illinois. What attracts people to serve in this organization is what it accomplishes, she says.
"They can see the tangible fruits of their labors," she says. "We produce results."
Members pay monthly dues (the amount depends on whether their meetings include lunch) and that helps fund the national staff, she says.
There aren't any paid officers, and all fundraising goes into local service projects, Deb Griest says.
To receive a free ramp, a person with a disability must be income-eligible. Requests for free ramps far exceed the club's resources and volunteer labor time, she says.
AmTrykes are also provided free to those in need, she says.
"We hope people with the ability to pay will pay or make a donation to the organization, so people with no ability to pay can get them free," she added.
Club membership drives are held twice a year, and the next one begins in March, Deb Griest says. Nationally, members average about age 50, she says, but AMBUCS is striving to recruit younger people and the Champaign County club has brought in some.
"It's a little more challenging to get the younger members," says Donna Carlton-Vish, president of the Danville AMBUCS. "We actually have a few younger members, and they're beginning to bring in their friends. It's a slow process."
The Danville chapter doesn't do ramp-building, but it has a big AmTrykes program and created a physical education program using AmTrykes in two physical education classes at local schools, Carlton-Vish says.
It also sponsors Challenger League baseball and physical therapy scholarships and has built three accessible playgrounds, she says.
One of its biggest programs is sending kids with disabilities to summer day camp for two weeks a year at no cost to their families, she says.
Matthew Barnes, an insurance agent who is president of the Champaign County chapter, says a client in the Danville chapter was the one to get him involved with AMBUCS.
"We were sitting in his office in Danville. He introduced me to AMBUCS and it really touched my heart, and I've been doing it since," he says.
A major hook for Barnes, an Air Force veteran, was providing the AmTrykes to disabled veterans and children, he says.
Seeing kids getting one of those therapeutic bikes, when they've never been able to ride a bike before, "it's hard to explain," Barnes says. "It's a very emotionally satisfying thing to be a part of."
Plus, AMBUCS runs in the family: His young adult daughter joined during a recent fall membership drive "by me sitting and talking to her," Barnes says.
His mother has become president of the Mishiana AMBUCS chapter founded last year in Indiana, he says.
"AMBUCS is an organization for people who don't have a lot of time to commit to it, so everybody doing a little bit accomplishes a lot," he says. "And we strive to have fun when we're doing it."
New AMBUCS are always welcome, Barnes says.
Who's a good candidate to join?
"A person with a big heart," he says.
Fundraising dinner set for March 2
Tickets are available to a fundraiser dinner and raffle planned by the Greater Champaign County AMBUCS to benefit all its service projects.
It will be held March 2 at the Laborer's Union Hall in Urbana, with appetizers at 6 p.m. and dinner at 7 p.m.
Tickets are $135 for dinner and a raffle chance, and $35 for dinner only. Not more than 305 raffle tickets will be sold, said AMBUCS member Ray Griest.
The grand prize winner will have a choice between a new Harley Davidson motorcycle or cash, he said.
Contact Griest for ticket information at 840-4092.