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Lean on me: Friends help community activist raise money for new van

Thursday, June 26, 2008 | 10:45 p.m. CDT; updated 12:21 a.m. CST, Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Kathleen Weinschenk's van is parked in front of Unity Church. A fundraiser was held Tuesday night to raise money for a new van for Weinschenk.

This article was updated at 6:12 p.m. Monday, June 30, to correct the model year of the van that Kathleen Weinschenk and Greg Ahrens hope to buy.

COLUMBIA — Rusty holes riddle the van’s doors. Much of the paint has peeled away, exposing the hood to be a dull, water-stained silver. Three of the tires are missing their hubcaps.

The back of the van, a red, wheelchair-accessible ‘92 Plymouth Voyager, is covered with bumper stickers: “Christian and a Democrat,” “Save the planet, vote Democratic” and “MIZZOURAH!”

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The van and its stickers belong to 65-year-old community activist, artist and poet Kathleen Weinschenk and her partner, Greg Ahrens. They use it to get Weinschenk, who has cerebral palsy, to church and meetings for the PedNet Coalition, Muleskinners, the Columbia Disabilities Commission and the First Night board of directors, not to mention around town to chat with friends.

“Once in a while we just go to the City Council meeting for a cheap date,” Ahrens says.

Inside, the van’s plywood floor and lack of air conditioning make for a hot, bumpy ride.

“That’s not good for old women,” Ahrens says.

“Or old men,” Weinschenk says, teasing him. Her blue eyes glint mischievously.

Weinschenk’s condition requires her to use a motorized wheelchair, and used wheelchair-accessible vehicles can cost upwards of $20,000.

The old van might not be the toughest obstacle Weinschenk has overcome, but her friends know it’s an uncomfortable one. So Tuesday night, more than 35 people gathered at a fundraiser for her at the Unity Center.

“To fill a room like this really says a lot,” said Sean Spence, a friend who helped organized the event.

The attendees paid as much or as little as they could afford. More than $3,500, as well as $1,000 donated in April by occupational therapy students at MU, will go toward a used van. Weinschenk and Ahrens are thinking about purchasing a 2002 Ford Windstar.

It wouldn’t be like Weinschenk to keep the project small, though.

“Her concern for others far exceeds her concern for herself,” says Giuli Krug, an occupational therapist who has worked with her.

She told Krug that she was interested in helping other people with disabilities who could not afford or access transportation. As a result, Weinschenk, Krug, friend Carol Buckels and a group of Krug’s students are working to put together a program that would help others in Boone County with similar problems.

“She’s probably one of the most kindhearted people I know,” Krug says.

A new van would be especially expensive for the pair.

It’s not in Weinschenk’s nature to let a rusty old van stop her, though.

“She gets things done,” says Buckels, her friend and a fellow member of Unity Center of Columbia. “She makes sure things happen, like when she testified before the legislature. She just goes that extra mile.”

Buckels is referring to a 2006 case against the state of Missouri in which Weinschenk was the primary plaintiff against a law that required people to show photo identification to vote. Both a trial court and the state Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional, and the case made national news. Weinschenk continued to fight the law as other forms of it were introduced into the Missouri legislature.

“I liked it,” Weinschenk says. “I like the drama.”

With her close-cropped, ruddy-brown hair, bright pink pants and gold purse, it’s clear that the self-described “big mouth” doesn’t mind standing out.

It wasn’t always that way.

It wasn’t until the age of four that a doctor confirmed Weinschenk had cerebral palsy. Her mother taught her at home at first. “On the day I repeated ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ after her, she was convinced I could learn,” Weinschenk wrote in a story posted on her church’s bulletin board. “It was something she would never let me forget.”

When Weinschenk reached school age, her mother fought with a Connecticut school board to get her into public school. She was taught by elementary school teachers until she reached the age when she would have entered seventh grade. At that time, she said, many people believed that people with some physical disabilities also had mental disabilities, which wasn’t the case. After her mother intervened, she was finally allowed to attend school with other children her age. “It was great,” she wrote. “I hated to leave to go home.”

But like most teenagers, she found it hard to be different. Once, as part of an assignment, she repeated Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” perfectly in front of her class.

“When I had finished, the teacher said to everyone, ‘If she can do it, anyone in this class can do it,’” Weinschenk writes. “Her words made me feel like such an outsider.”

Her mother helped her realize that while Weinschenk was different, she could do everything her peers could — and more.

Now an MU graduate with bachelor’s degrees in psychology and sociology and a master’s degree in education, Weinschenk knows her mother was right.

She chose her fields of study because she likes people. “I wanted to help other people who are disabled,” she says.

However, Weinschenk has never had to rely on her degrees to help others. She acts a voice for people with disabilities by staying involved in the community.

“Who knows my opinions better than me?” she says. “I can’t work, so I have to give back. With all that I have.”

As the disabilities chairwoman on the First Night board of directors, she makes sure venues are accessible. She’s also on the PedNet Coalition.

“They like her being on because you get the extra perspective of someone with disabilities to keep us on track,” Ahrens says about Weinschenk being on the PedNet Coalition.

Her attitude is just as valuable as her input, though.

“When you watch her in action, you can see the enthusiasm comes out,” said Scott Cristal, a friend and officer for both the Muleskinners and the Boone County Democratic Central Committee.

Weinschenk’s involvement in the community is extensive, but it’s her spirit — both childlike and strong, says the Rev. Kristen Powell — that inspires her friends the most.

“When I’m speaking, I generally ask Kathleen to be as close to the front as possible,” says her friend Spence, who is speaking a lot lately as a candidate for state legislature. “You can count on her to cheer, you can count on a fist in the air, you can count on a spinning wheelchair.”

Donations for Weinschenk’s van can be sent to The Kathleen Weinschenk Fund at P.O. Box 893, Columbia, MO, 65205.


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