Miami Herald 12/17/02

With a lawyer's gift, a disabled woman gains new access

BY JENNIFER MALONEY

The wind on her face never felt so good.

Felicia Omasta had lived in her North Miami Beach condo for 2 ½ years, but for the first time, she was enjoying the breeze from her balcony.

In 1999, Omasta and her family moved into a North Miami Beach condo given to them by her father-in-law. The gift enabled the Omasta family to move out of subsidized housing.

But for Omasta, paralyzed from the waist down and using a wheelchair, the condo stripped her of the independence she had enjoyed for years.

An avid cook, she could not reach the stove dials.

Bathing was now a nightmare. To get inside the shower, Omasta had to hoist herself to an outside stool and slide from that stool to a bench inside the stall, sometimes bruising herself severely.

Just wheeling from room to room through the thick blue wall-to-wall carpeting was an exhausting endeavor.

And a two-inch lip on the door frame between the living room and balcony prevented her from slipping outside.

Her story was chronicled in November 2001, as part of The Herald's Wishbook series, when Omasta asked for community help in remodeling her bathroom.

When Matthew Dietz, an attorney who specializes in the rights of the disabled, read the story that Tuesday morning, his first thought was ``Someone should help this woman.''

"Then he thought, ``I can do this.''

And not just the bathroom -- he was going to do it all.

But not with a clever argument in court or a stern letter to a company. Instead, Dietz rounded up friends and colleagues to pitch in labor. A quick call to the disabled advocacy group Access Now secured $10,000. Then came the tedious part -- 11 months of slicing through red tape to get the necessary building permits.

Last week, 15 volunteers -- eight of them lawyers -- convened to begin the renovation.

Their first target: the thick carpet that had been the bane of Omasta's wheelchair over the last two years.

Slicing with utility knives, they removed it piece by piece, then pulled up the foam pad underneath.

Shortly thereafter, two teenage volunteers began knocking down a bathroom wall under the watchful eye of Richard Londono, an architect who drew up the plans for the renovation.

Londono -- who specializes in making buildings accessible to the disabled -- brought four other volunteers from his firm.

''This is the smallest job I've ever done,'' he said. ``But the most rewarding.''

After stripping away the carpet from the living room, volunteers took an electric saw to the two-inch metal ledge between that room and the adjacent balcony.

In less than fives minutes, the strip was sheered clean off.

The buzzing and banging stopped momentarily, and a ripple of spontaneous applause swept through the group: Felicia Omasta had just wheeled herself -- for the first time -- onto her balcony.

''It feels -- strange,'' she said, her eyes shining.

Matthew Dietz looked on, shaking his head.

''That's incredible,'' he murmurred.

When the three-week renovation is completed, Omasta will have a stove she can reach, a wheel-in shower and large white tiles on the floor.

Omasta is already planning the celebratory dinner she will cook in her new oven. The menu: lasagna and homemade bread.

And she's looking forward to teaching her 6-year-old daughter, Taylor, how to bake chocolate chip cookies.

''This will help me to be a positive role model for her,'' Omasta said, watching her daughter print her name on note paper. 'I want her to see `my mother can do this, I can do it, too.' ''

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