South Charlotte

Building ramps for wheelchairs

Bob Wilcocks, 74, is putting his talents and passions to good use during his retirement.

Wilcocks heads up a nonprofit organization called Operation Exodus, which focuses on building wheelchair ramps for folks who don't otherwise have the means to do so.

In one instance, they built a ramp for a woman who had not been out of her house on her own in three years. The few times she had briefly been out, she was carried.

Bob and his wife, Carol, have been married for 52 years, and they have two grown children, Holly and Nyle. Wilcocks is an Army veteran, and he worked at Nabisco for 23 years as a maintenance supervisor.

He has been the director of Operation Exodus for 10 years. Wilcocks found his way to Operation Exodus through the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal benefit society founded in 1882.

The Knights of Columbus has 14,000 councils and about 1.8 million members worldwide. Wilcocks is a member of the St. Matthew Council 10852, which has about 450 members.

The St. Matthew Council largely focuses on supporting charities that aid people with intellectual disabilities, so Operation Exodus fits that bill.

Building a ramp takes about two days. Wilcocks will often call on a Knights council in a different part of the city to help. He also has several volunteers who do not belong to the Knights of Columbus.

He builds squirrel-resistant birdhouses and sells them to help fund the charity. Fourteen wheelchair ramps were built last year, and each one costs about $2,000 to $3,000, depending on the design.

Wilcocks said when a ramp needs to be built, "I go over and talk to the folks to see if their need is legitimate, I draw up the plans, get the city permits and HOA approvals if needed, organize the team of people, supervise and help with the building of the ramp, and ultimately acquire the inspections from the city of Charlotte."

Building a ramp is a complicated endeavor.

Many well-meaning friends of the disabled have tried unsuccessfully to build one, and the team has to tear that down first.

For instance, if a doorsill is 36 inches off the ground, the ramp incline has to be 36 feet long to meet code. The turns have to be level, and the posts cemented into the ground.

Operation Exodus has built ramps for folks in all kinds of situations: a child with cerebral palsy, a man who was in a motorcycle accident, a senior adult who had two disabled sons living with her, and a 100-year-old man who wanted to come home from a nursing facility.

When a ramp is completed, Father Conway, a priest at St. Matthew, always comes out and blesses the ramp, the residents, the workers and the house.

"We have been a lot of places, in all kinds of neighborhoods," Wilcocks said. "Everyone is always so grateful, and so relieved."