Town Pulls Together for Paralyzed Vet

Andrew ParkerCourtesy of Greg Barnes
From left: Andrew Parker, 21; Winnie Barnes, Andrew's mom, 40; Morgan Barnes, Andrew's sister, 16; Greg Barnes, Andrew's stepdad, 44.

Hyde Park, Vt., is a special place. It has beautiful scenery and a tight community of residents. And for one hometown hero, they are the people who helped make his life easier when it had become impossibly hard.

Andrew Parker went to his old school last summer to visit his former kindergarten teacher, Diane Marcoux-LaClair, and to say goodbye. Parker, now 21, was headed off to war in Afghanistan. He was deployed that June.

"And I just looked at his face for a minute, just so I could remember that face," Marcoux-LaClair said. "It was really hard to say goodbye to him. I hugged him and I said, 'Andrew, just be careful. Come back to us safe. Just come back to us safe.'"

But when a bomb hit Parker's vehicle around Thanksgiving 2008, he was left paralyzed. His family was devastated and unsure how to turn their hilltop home into a disabled-accessible place.

Marcoux-LaClair thought she might be able to lend a hand. She brought some baskets fashioned from pictures of Parker to a town meeting and asked for whatever donations people could spare.

The result was incredible. She raised $2,000 at that meeting alone and, subsequently, hundreds more.

"If I could have tapped these people who called me, and who shared their own stories, you know, 'My son didn't make it, but this one did. And so in my son's memory, I want to do this. I am going to be sending you $20. I am going to be sending you $100.' And they did. People I didn't even know. I didn't even know these peopleā€¦"

People from across the country gave money, and people from Canada also contributed. The VFW collected all the checks and deposited them into an account.

The fund-raising effort brought in so much money -- about $100,000 in private donations, plus a $50,000 grant from a nonprofit called Rebuilding Together -- that the original plan to modify the Parker's garage was scrapped in favor of a 1,500-square-foot addition to the Parker residence. It would be built, cost-free, by an army of architects, carpenters, plumbers and electricians.

One project coordinator said there had so many volunteers, he couldn't find work for everyone. In only four months, the addition was almost done and Parker and his mother, Winnie Barnes, stopped in for a look.

"[This place] is awesome," Parker said. "I didn't know this town could rally around one person as quickly as they did."

Barnes, 40, sounded optimistic. "I am sure there's a lot of challenges we are going to face, but there's a lot of people around to help us with it."

Soldier's Homecoming: 'Overwhelming'

"I'm not really one who wants to ask for help, but it's my boy, so you kinda let things happen for your family members," Parker's stepfather, Greg Barnes, 44, said.

The community support "has been overwhelming to me," he said, adding that he found it remarkable "how well everyone came together to do this project."

Crews are still doing touch-up work on the home, widening doors to a bedroom and the main entrance to accommodate Parker's wheelchair.

Parker was discharged from the VFW last Friday, giving him a work dog -- the dog is trained to pick things off the floor, fetch and more. The soldier is training with the dog right now in Princeton, Mass. But he's headed home today to be grand marshal in the Morristown July 4 parade.

After the parade, Parker will train with the dog for one more week before heading home for good.

"We have a beautiful home for Andrew," teacher Marcoux-LaClair said. "Look what he has to come home to."