Olinger inspires Owen senior to create Eagle Scout project to benefit disabled parkgoers
One evening in February 2017, Britten Olinger was on his way home from work when a car going 120 mph in a 20 mph zone slammed into the back of his car. Olinger suffered multiple injuries, including a severed spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down.
New to the area, Olinger came to Black Mountain to be coach of Montreat College's track team. After the car accident, he was told he would never walk again.
Owen High senior Noah Lewkowicz had grown close with Olinger over the years, a man he saw as his unrelated uncle. His dad ran with Olinger back in Virginia, and Lewkowicz and his family were at Olinger's wedding.
"Not biologically related," Lewkowicz said, "But kind of like family."
Being confined to a wheelchair, Olinger faced new challenges, especially when it came to spending quality time with his two children. Lewkowicz said he realized the limitations Olinger faced when it came to simple things such as going to the park with his kids.
After Olinger's accident, Lewkowicz said the community rallied together to help in any way they could. He wondered if they could do it again.
For his Eagle Scout project, Lewkowicz thought he could make a playground wheelchair accessible so people like his friend could enjoy the park with his family. But beyond one person, Lewkowicz said making playgrounds more accessible would help show visitors to the area how welcoming the community is.
"It would help people see this is a nice little community and it's welcome for everybody," Lewkowicz said. "More inclusive."
According to Lewkowicz, the park beside Lake Tomahawk had previously been mulch, a surface difficult to navigate in a wheelchair. Lewkowicz wanted to change that, to replace it with something Olinger could utilize as well as access from the parking lot.
The process proved difficult for Lewkowicz. He said he had many people to speak and network with, a daunting task for the then 15-year-old.
"There was a lot of challenges that came with that," Lewkowicz said. "I went to this one company and was pitching this idea and the guy straight up looked at me in the eyes and said, 'I think this is overly ambitious and it's kind of stupid.'"
Being a teenager and hearing that some found his proposal was asking for too much was tough for Lewkowicz, but the rejection helped strengthen his resolve.
"So many people helped out and those that didn't only lit the fuel for me to keep going," Lewkowicz said.
As the pandemic hit the country and money became tighter for businesses and donors, the cost of the project went up. Lewkowicz's mother, Wendy, said the cost started at around $12,000 and increased to more than $17,000 over a two-year span as things began to reopen.
Lewkowicz successfully completed the project last November. The project connected the parking lot to the playground with a paved pathway and replaced the mulch with a bounce-back surface, a softer but more manageable alternative to concrete.
A group of local workers volunteered to help, but due to the schedule constraints of a local construction business, they had to be ready to start at any time. With barely a 24 hour notice, everyone came together to get the project done, finishing in just three days.
Wendy Lewkowicz said due to a mix-up, the project was estimated to have a smaller surface area than was necessary, resulting in not enough material being provided. She said Jason Woody from R&L Paving decided to fix the problem himself, donating an extra day to cover the remaining surface.
"It was incredible," Lewkowicz said. "Everybody showed up at the same time at the playground and worked from early in the morning to into the evening."
As difficult of a process as it the project was, Lewkowicz said that if people are willing to put in the work and garner support, even teenagers can accomplish their larger goals. He said he was grateful to be able to have the support of his parents, which helped considerably.
"I think a lot of people in this day and age, they realize that if kids can choose to make an impact on the community, they can do anything," Lewkowicz said. "When you want to do something to help other people, that can help get the work done even sooner."