The house had become a prison for Jeaninne Kasa. But that was before the Zephyr Express.
Kasa, 54, has a progressive form of multiple sclerosis, a chronic disease that attacks the central nervous system. Within two years of her diagnosis in 2010, the former elementary school teacher had lost the ability to walk up and down the stairs in her home near Lilley Gulch Park.
“Oh, boy, it was hard. I was depressed,” Kasa said. “We went through a lot of troubles back then.”
The house she’d owned since 2006 had become an obstacle course. Getting down the half-flight of stairs to her front door and out to the car was a painful, hour-long process.
The interior of the home, which was built in the 1970s, posed many challenges. The hallways and doorways were narrow for anyone, but were especially difficult to navigate in a wheelchair, Kasa said.
“We were going to sell the house just because I couldn’t get up the stairs and of how difficult the showers were to use,” Kasa said. “It was just miserable.”
But last year Kasa became the thankful owner of what she affectionately calls the Zephyr Express, a chair lift that was installed through a program run by the nonprofit Home Builders Foundation of Metro Denver.
Kasa named the chair after her favorite ski lift at Winter Park.
“It’s the Zephyr Express; my wheelchair is my Big Wheel, and I call my walker Larry Walker (after the former Colorado Rockies player),” Kasa said. “It’s my ski ride since I can’t ski anymore. It’s so convenient and easy. It’s made things 1,000 times easier.”
The chair came just in time for Kasa to participate in Halloween last fall, a holiday she missed in 2012, when the best she could do was leave a bowl of candy on the front porch.
“(Last Halloween) I was able to take the Zephyr down to the door and pass out candy. My costume was a Denver Broncos fan in my bleacher seat,” Kasa laughed. “There’s so many downers about MS — I have to make fun of it and laugh it off.”
The foundation just completed the six-month-long project at Kasa’s house last week, which also included installing a disabled-accessible bathroom and shower.
“I took my first shower yesterday in years,” Kasa said. “It was so nice.”
Kasa’s daughter, Briauna Kasa, has been one of her mother’s primary caregivers since her diagnosis. Briauna said the improvements to the house have changed things dramatically for her and her mother.
“It has been a lot easier, especially with not having to worry about what we’d have to do to sell the house,” Briauna said. “It’s so much better. It’s made such a difference. She’s my hero.”
The foundation helps homeowners like Kasa install devices like chair lifts and disabled-accessible bathrooms and showers, along with helping to widen doorways and make other improvements. Whatever improvements aren’t covered by insurance are provided free of charge.
A chair lift alone can cost from $3,000 to $10,000, which many people facing accessibility issues can’t afford, said Beth Forbes, the foundation’s executive director.
“It makes all the difference. We as able-bodied people without limitations don’t notice that a small door frame is the difference between getting into a room and not being able to get into a room when you’re using a walker or a wheelchair,” Forbes said. “The challenges our recipients face are a daily reminder of the limited access they have. I think (the renovations) make all the difference in the world to them.”
The foundation works with volunteers and private businesses that specialize in making homes accessible, such as Englewood-based Accessible Systems.
“The Home Builders Foundation was tackling some of the toughest projects no one else could do, and they asked for our help about eight years ago,” said Nathan Colburn, vice president of Accessible Systems. “We really enjoyed that this was a nonprofit that wasn’t scared of the tough projects and could help the people that no one else was equipped to help.”
Colburn, now a member of the Home Builders Foundation board, said Accessible Systems works on about 18 out of the 60 or so homes the foundation handles each year, including Kasa’s case.
“(Colburn) was wonderful. He said, ‘We’re going to take care of you and help improve your quality of life,’ ” Kasa said.
Each time he visits a home to assess a client’s needs, Colburn said, it’s impossible not to become invested in the project emotionally.
“You go into people’s homes, and you realize this is a great person. They’ve got great families. Yet their home wasn’t set up to accommodate their needs,” he said. “You realize that they’re so upbeat and thankful and excited about the little things that get better. It makes you thankful for what we all have.
“You realize (that) before it took her almost an hour to get down to the car, and it was maybe once a month that she’d leave. And now she can do it every day like you and I.”
For Kasa, it means she has a chance to rejoin life outside her home. She’s currently working as a tutor and hopes to serve as a voice for the Home Builders Foundation in the future.
“This has given me a little bit more independence than I had before,” Kasa said. “Oh my god, I’m only 54. I still have a lot of life to go, and I don’t want to be dead yet.”
To find out more about the Home Builders Foundation and how you can volunteer to help with upcoming projects, visit www.hbf