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The Globe and Mail

Paralyzed girl’s family believes in angels after man’s help

Brian Williams, owner of Ashton Service Group, a Richmond-based plumbing company, stands at the future home of Emily De Boer, who was recently paralyzed.

Jimmy Jeong/Jimmy Jeong/

Officially, Brian Williams is the long-time owner of a plumbing, heating and gas company, the man to call when your furnace is not working or your toilet is overflowing. But ask Charmis De Boer and she will call him an angel. A complete stranger just half a year ago, Mr. Williams is now spearheading a construction project that will help Ms. De Boer's family, in many ways, rebuild.

In February, 2011, Ms. De Boer's daughter, Emily, underwent surgery to correct a curve in her spine. Something went wrong during the procedure, and the active, athletic girl – then just 11 years old – lost mobility in her legs. The family was devastated.

A three-storey Steveston house that Emily's dad, Grant, had spent years renovating into the family's dream home was suddenly impractical. The family consulted an architect, but was told it was not feasible to make the property wheelchair accessible; the lot, for example, was too narrow to have wide passages on each floor. The family sold the home and moved into an old fixer-upper nearby, believing it would be easier to renovate.

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Early this year, mutual friend Rick Hansen, the renowned advocate for spinal cord injury research, put the De Boer family in touch with Mr. Williams and his wife, Julie. Mr. Williams, president of Ashton Service Group, had some experience with access renovations, having recently helped renovate the home of a friend who now uses a wheelchair due to a car accident. The hope, Ms. De Boer said, was that Mr. Williams would help redo the bathroom and provide some general renovation advice.

"A lot of contractors are great at what they do, but when you take the accessibility piece into it, it's like starting from ground zero," Ms. De Boer said. "It was a big relief when Rick told me Brian was going to call … I was thinking it would be nice to work with a contractor with experience." The families met in June.

The De Boers did not have the money to make all the needed changes at once, but figured they could tackle them – lower counters, wider hallways, double swinging doors and such – one at a time, starting with the most important elements.

Mr. Williams had another idea. Soon after their meeting, he said, he "began chirping" to friends in the construction industry. Suddenly, companies started coming forward with offers of labour and supplies, including plumbing fixtures, heating, lighting, electrical and excavation services. About a month after their meeting, Mr. Williams returned to the family with a thought: Let's demolish and rebuild the entire house.

"I had to leave the room," Ms. De Boer said. "My eyes welled up and I said, 'You don't understand.' They can't do that. At the time, I was thinking they didn't understand we didn't have the financial strength to pull this off. He said, 'Don't worry, we have some people helping us.' I didn't know what to say."

She pauses to collect her thoughts.

"I think the gratitude for me is so large that I had a hard time getting past, 'Really?' It was just so big. You hear about things coming together like this on TV ... but it doesn't seem like something that happens to regular people."

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The entire project, estimated to be worth $500,000, will cost the family nothing. Mr. Williams recalled that day with a smile: "They were like ghosts, like, 'Are you kidding?'"

Mr. Williams has long been an advocate of charitable giving and corporate responsibility, helping the community that raised him. With this project, however, he said it was his role as a father of three that made the decision a no-brainer: "I just looked at their children and thought, 'Wow. Imagine if this happened to us. How would you climb up that mountain?'"

The crew demolished the old house in mid-December, allowing Emily and her 10-year-old sister, Audrey, to help with small sledgehammers. The De Boer family will stay in an apartment in Steveston until the new home is completed in late 2013.

"Watching the house come down was a relief, knowing that so much has been taken off our shoulders," Ms. De Boer said. "I feel so much gratitude knowing that these angels have fallen into our lives and are being led by Brian."

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