At home with the Olingers

Paul Clark
Black Mountain News
Samantha, Britten and little Kolbie Olinger have welcomed Easton into their newly renovated home.

It’s like Britten and Samantha Olinger have a new house, all over again.

They had lived in their Black Mountain home only three months when a speeding car smashed into Britten Olinger’s in downtown Black Mountain. They had been so happy to have found the house, one they could afford, so close to Montreat College where Olinger coaches track and field. A three-bedroom, one-bath house, it was a starter home for them, one they planned to expand.

Their enjoyment of it was short-lived, however, after the crash that left Britten with a severe spinal cord injury that paralyzed him from the chest down. He spent months in a rehabilitation facility in Atlanta before the family moved back into their house the last week of September.

By then it was practically new to them again, thanks to a couple of dozen volunteers, some local businesses and a community that poured money and emotional support into the family’s recovery. After many long weeks of ripping out walls and rewiring electrical lines, the Olingers have a home Britten can negotiate. The doorways are wider, the floor is all one plane and the house can now accommodate a motorized wheelchair - and a newborn baby.

Though Britten has lots of physical therapy ahead, he was happy last week as his wife, Sam, nestled two-week-old Easton into a pillow on his lap. Dancing around her and drinking out of a sippy cup was Kolbie, almost a year and a half old. A widescreen TV played a children’s movie. The scene was a tender one – a young family enjoying each other, much like any young family in the Swannanoa Valley.

Britten Olinger tenderly holds Easton as his daughter Kolbie, left, and wife Sam look on.

Britten said he has no memory of the first several weeks after the accident. “There was about a week that, when Sam would walk into the (hospital room), I would ask her, what happened,” he said. And she would tell him once again about the accident.

“As soon as I came to grips with the injury, the next rush (of emotions) was, how do I provide” for my family, he said. “How do I figure out ‘home’ and ‘wheelchair’ and ‘accessibility’? That was like a dark moment.”

But Sam told him that volunteers were already on it. She had already met with local architect Maury Hurt, who had volunteered to draw up plans to make the home wheelchair accessible. Mike Shoaf, Montreat College’s director of facilities, a former building contractor, stepped up to coordinate the renovations.

By the first weekend in April, Sam’s dad and her brother were packing up the house so demolition could begin. All spring and summer, some two dozen volunteers worked steadily, often into the night, pulling out insulation, running wire and putting in plumbing. People who thought they’d show up to plant flowers were happy to tear out drywall.

Henson Building Materials supplied the material at cost, Shoaf said. Joe Snyder of the Black Mountain Fire Department, one of the first emergency people to arrive at the scene of Britten’s wreck, coordinated the labor for the driveway and got a local concrete company to donate the concrete. Snyder was one of the many volunteers who brought their own equipment and supplies

“If he didn’t have the supplies, he bought them, as did me and my electrician, who donated about $5,000 of his own money. I know several people who donated in the tens of thousands of dollars of their own money because we needed stuff and there wasn’t time to wait.”

Electricians from Montreat College worked on their own time, after hours and on weekends, to rewire the house. Crews enclosed the carport to create a third bedroom and laundry room that Britten can roll through from the special van the family bought. Crews widened the house’s central hallway by a foot.

On May 11, a team of local Keller Williams real estate agents helped set posts for a new deck that makes the backyard accessible to Britten. Another group of agents worked in the front yard to prepare an area where Snyder was to pour the new driveway. Eddie Colley, broker-in-charge for Keller Williams Black Mountain, organized the team and, with his family, helped with the demolition that preceded the renovations.

Wendy Lewkowicz, the wife of Montreat cross country coach Jason Lewkowicz, lined up a company to haul away the construction waste, Shoaf said. She found a company to provide the sod for the back yard. Blossman Gas not only donated a 500-gallon tank, Shoaf said, but also the gas in it. Shoaf is still hoping someone will donate a propane-powered generator so that, should they ever lose power, Britten won’t overheat because of a failed heating and cooling systems.

Shoaf estimates the value of the donated labor, supplies and equipment at well over $150,000, money the Olingers could ill afford to pay, what with medical bills that Britten said were “in the millions.”

There’s still work to be done on what is now a three-bedroom, two-bath house, Shoaf said last week. The inside paint isn’t quite complete, and the outside trim and exterior paint still need doing.

With a new baby on the way, all the changes the crews have made “were the ones we wanted to make” anyway, Sam said as Easton cooed in Britten’s lap. “Instead of our three- to five-year plan for renovations, it happened in six months.”

For a couple of people who had just moved to town, didn’t know many people and who are shy by nature, all this help and support “was a little overwhelming at first,” Sam said. But it certainly felt good. “To know that on top of our family we had this huge family with us was pretty amazing,” she said.