“You’re not leaving until this wheelchair is like new.”
Michael Sulsona of Graniteville, N.Y., hardly expected to hear such a statement on what had begun as a routine trip to a Lowe’s store July 7 to pick up materials to repair fencing on his property.
But when his wheelchair – which had been riddled with broken parts for more than two years – suddenly broke in the home improvement store, a team of strangers told him just that and then jumped into action.
“These three guys came out of nowhere,” Mr. Sulsona says. “They just focused right on the wheelchair. They were so intent on taking the wheelchair apart.”
Sulsona was with his wife in front of one of the store’s displays when a bolt, crucial to holding the wheelchair together, snapped – a problem he had become accustomed to over the course of two years as he waited for a replacement chair from the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
Realizing that one of the wheels was on the verge of falling off, the couple asked an employee, Sal, for help in finding the right bolt to fix the chair. Sal called over fellow Lowe's employees David, Marcus, and Souleyman to help and then assisted Sulsona into a patio chair as they went to work fixing the chair.
“Sal says, ‘We are going to fix this right here,’ ” Sulsona recalled in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. Sal told him his own mother had been in a wheelchair for some 30 years, and that his father was a Vietnam War veteran like Sulsona.
While serving in Vietnam in 1971, Sulsona stepped on a land mine and lost both legs above the knee. He has been confined to a wheelchair since.
It took a while to find just the right bolt to fix Sulsona’s wheelchair, but 45 minutes after the store was supposed to close, the team of employees had followed through on their promise, and the chair was just like new.
“In half of the store, the lights were being turned off, and they were putting it together,” Sulsona says. “They were just pulling stuff off the shelves ... they wouldn’t stop until the wheelchair got put back together.”
Upon being presented with the repaired chair, Sulsona says, he thanked the four men. But they didn’t say "You’re welcome." Instead, he was told "it was our honor."
“I was so impressed about these guys stepping to the plate,” Sulsona says. “It was such a simple act, but it hit me like ‘this is how it should be.’
“They didn’t ask permission to help, and they didn’t have to fill out a form. They didn’t have to make a phone call. They didn’t have to ask for permission from their manager. They just went ahead and did what they had to do.”
After that night, Sulsona wrote a letter to a local newspaper to offer gratitude to the employees who, through a company spokesperson, have asked news media outlets for privacy and to remain out of the public spotlight.
Headlines about the spontaneous act of kindness have made it across the country and, Sulsona says, the world.
His intent in telling his story is not to disparage the time it has taken for the VA to replace his chair or to add to the criticism surrounding what he describes as an overburdened federal agency – in fact, he received a replacement wheelchair from the VA shortly after the incident – but rather to focus on the kindness of strangers.
“I hope that people ... take this story and use these guys for an example, in a bigger sense, of how we should live life,” he says. “We are our brother’s keeper.”
Sulsona adds that he has received countless offers of assistance – from as near as New York to as far away as Guam – in the form of everything from cash to off-road wheelchair equipment.
“Everybody is looking to donate and give me money,” he says. But “I’m doing fine.”
Sulsona encourages anyone wishing to help to support The Barry Fixler Foundation (http://www.fixlerfoundation.org), which has the mission of supporting wounded American veterans from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The actions of the Lowe's employees reminded Susona of why he and so many others have fought in the US armed forces, he says.
“We fought for the common man, and these guys in Lowe's were a pure example of the people we fought for,” he says, for a moment likening them to his fellow infantrymen in Vietnam. “They had my back. They covered my back.”