Feb 192015

By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

DEWITT — Matt Grillot pushed a button to open the sliding door on the side of his red van. His black lab, Max, hopped in and plopped onto the backseat. Grillot, 38, propelled his automatic wheelchair up the ramp and locked into a spot behind the steering wheel.

Lindsay Steele
Matt Grillot, member of St. Joseph Parish in DeWitt and grand knight of the parish’s Knights of Columbus council, shows off his new hand-controlled van Feb. 13. He was hesitant to ask for help in affording the vehicle, but once word got out, donations poured in.

After more than four years of not having a van suited to his strengths and weaknesses, Grillot’s spot in the driver’s seat is one he’s still getting used to. Grillot, grand knight of St. Joseph Parish Knights of Columbus Council No. 959, didn’t think it was possible to afford such a vehicle. That is, until he asked his friends, family and parish members for fundraising help late last spring.

Grillot and his committee — Wheels for Matt — began planning a benefit. As it turned out, they didn’t need to.

As word of mouth spread through Facebook, flyers and newspaper articles, donations poured into a fund at DeWitt Bank and Trust and an online crowdfunding site. Before the committee could even reserve a venue for the benefit, Grillot had the $22,000 he needed to afford his van.

“I was very surprised, and so was everyone else,” Grillot said, noting that it was difficult for him to come forward and ask for help. He suffered a spinal cord injury at age 6, which paralyzed his legs and affected the strength and mobility of his hands. He endeavors to be as independent and active as possible. This independence was hampered a bit after his previous vehicle was totaled in an accident in 2010. He wanted to be able to afford a new van on his own, but no matter how many times he crunched the numbers, it simply was not possible.

Parish members say the community’s generosity is a testament to Grillot’s dedication to St. Joe’s and the town. In addition to his leadership role in the local KCs, Grillot is active in Christian Experience Weekend activities, serves as a lector and has taught religious education at St. Joseph Parish. He also works as a call center representative for a local business, Swiss Colonies.

His pastor, Father Paul Connolly, said the generosity “shows that people value all he does.”

After the money was raised in late July, Grillot and the Wheels for Matt committee started work on choosing the best van. It wasn’t as simple as going to a dealership, taking a test drive and driving the car home. With the money raised, he purchased a customized van with a lowered floor, a ramp, removable front seats and other accommodations. At that point, the van still needed custom controls.

Grillot underwent a driving evaluation in Wheaton, Ill. to determine which control systems would best suit his abilities. Iowa Department of Vocational Rehabilitation helped pay for the controls and installation, which Grillot estimated at around $80,000.

On Jan. 6, Grillot drove his van for the first time. “It felt good,” he said. He controls the vehicle with specially designed hand controls and a computer monitor.

Though the winter weather has slowed his ability to “get some miles” on the van, he’s already been able to drive to a meeting of the Illinois/Iowa Center for Independent Living in Rock Island, Ill., and driven friends to Davenport for his birthday. He looks forward to better road conditions so he can fully discern the possibilities that come with his newfound freedom. His first hope is to be able to work alongside his supervisors and coworkers at Swiss Colonies; he currently works from home.

He wants to do more to give back to the community that helped him so much, but feels he’ll never fully be able to repay the generosity. “I’ll look for opportunities to help others and go from there. It’s about all anyone can do!”

Fr. Connolly is anxious to see what Grillot — whose home neighbors the church — will do with his increased freedom. “It opens up a whole new world!”

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