Tevlin: Readers, leaders step in to right wrongs

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 30, 2012 - 11:58 PM
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Greg Richter, left, and Bruce Kittilstved of Coon Rapids Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep with Sally Packard. “I feel just like Cinderella,” she said.

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It has been a good week for compassionate church ladies and workers with disabilities, and therefore a good week for humanity.

Two stories I've been following in this space were resolved within the last several days because of kind readers and, yes, our political leaders.

First up: I wrote about Sally Packard on March 17. Packard, 76, had her car stolen by a teenager, who then crashed and totalled the car. But when she faced the 17-year-old in court, she forgave the boy and offered him two stones, one with the word "Hope" and another reading "A special prayer for you."

The kid broke down. The lawyers and judge were in tears. It was a moment they all will remember.

What has happened since is at least as remarkable and a true example of "paying it forward." One anonymous reader, when hearing about Packard's leaky roof, contacted a friend at the Builders Association of Minnesota, who found a contractor, Plekkenpol Builders, who fixed it.

For the past several weeks, readers who had not known each other worked diligently together to raise money and find a car. Because Packard receives medical assistance, she can't accept cash. So several readers worked the phones, telling about Packard's kindness and generosity in the face of the loss of her only transportation. One reader, Barbara Jerich, in fact, even made contacts while she was on vacation in Mexico.

Last week, Peter Hasselquist, CEO of Twin Cities Automotive Group, stepped forward. The readers offered to put some of the money they raised toward paying for the car, but Hasselquist said it was a gift. One reader, who asked not to be named, and a representative from Packard's church brought her to lunch, then to the dealership to pick up the car from Bruce Kittilstved, general manager of Coon Rapids Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep and Greg Richter, a sales manager.

"They wanted to be clear that what they did wasn't for recognition or publicity," said the man. "They were just pleased that they were able to help a very special lady in a very special way."

Richter said the gift was an easy call: "She's the nicest person I've ever met," he said.

The car is a 2006 Hyundai Elantra with chrome hubcaps, a spotless interior and accessories she's never had before: A radio, air conditioning and an alarm. To Packard, her new used car is the "golden chariot" that will take her to church every morning and get her around on errands.

"I feel just like Cinderella at the ball," she said. "This has changed my whole life, just because I did something everyone should do every day."

Packard's odyssey started when Judge Kathryn Quaintance wrote to me about the magnanimous gesture (she wouldn't accept compensation from the teen) in court. Quaintance hoped the attention would prompt someone to donate a car, and it worked. "I have a feeling the ripples will continue for a while," Quaintance wrote after learning of the new car.

More good news

I've written twice about Charles Van Heuveln. For 18 years Van Heuveln has worked in the St. Paul Public School system, despite having cerebral palsy. Van Heuveln has saved money and earned a pension, working under a program called Medical Assistance for Employed Persons with a Disability (MA-EPD), which encourages disabled people to work and remain independent by allowing them to keep some of their earnings.

Soon, however, Van Heuveln turns 65 and under the previous law would be forced to retire and "spend down" most of his assets so he could qualify for medical assistance -- forced poverty.

But Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bill on Monday that would allow people such as Van Heuveln to continue working if they want, and also keep their savings under MA-EPD limits.

Sen. Kathy Sheran and others, including Anne Henry of the Disability Law Center, have been trying to help people in this situation for several years. Van Heuveln's story put a human face on the issue.

In the end it was a bipartisan vote. As Dayton said Monday: "They all came together, and worked quietly and constructively, and have remedied now, $18 million of reductions from last year that had some unintended consequences that none of us could anticipate. And it's just really an extraordinary accomplishment, especially in the context of some of the other difficulties we have had this session."

Imagine: legislators from both parties working together to help our most vulnerable. See how that works?

"We didn't get everything, but we got a lot," said Van Heuveln, who said he now can continue to work and support himself.

"It's a happy day," said Henry.

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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