By Michael DePietro
Interim Tribune Editor
A wheelchair-bound veteran from Lewiston is getting a new Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant home, thanks to an organization based in New York City and a generous local community.
Between 2006-10, Matt Daniels served as an E4 specialist in the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division. In 2008, while on a 15-month deployment in Bayji, Iraq, an IED attack left Daniels with a severe spinal injury. Although he was initially able to still walk, the nerve damage continued to get worse despite multiple surgeries. Now he has to rely on a wheelchair to get around.
Unfortunately, the house he and his wife, Kristin, purchased in 2015, before Matt lost the ability to walk, has not made the family’s situation any easier. The doorways are too narrow for Matt’s chair to fit through, forcing him to physically “lunge” himself into rooms and grab onto nearby fixtures. Additionally, without a chairlift, he hasn’t been to the second floor of his house in years.
Last month, a fundraising effort spearheaded by numerous local organizations as well as Niagara Falls City Councilman Kenny Tompkins sought to change that. Tompkins first learned of Daniels’ situation this past November.
“The K.I.A. Memorial Road March (KMR) had asked if I knew of any veterans in the northtown areas who might need anything during Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Tompkins said.
He immediately thought of the Daniels family, whom he had met recently at an event by Hands Healing Heroes, an organization created by Dr. Kristin Jacobsen committed to providing complimentary chiropractic care to any servicemen or women wounded in combat.
When Tompkins and a group of volunteers came to the Daniels’ home for Thanksgiving, he saw firsthand the struggles Matt had to go through in his own home.
“I said, ‘We have to do something about this,’ ” Tompkins explained.
Soon after, Tompkins contacted a few local businesses and organizations to put together a fundraiser and a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for renovations that would bring the Daniels’ home up to ADA standards. Organizations included KMR, Hands Healing Heroes, 2 Guys Construction, Nickle City Dolls and Team Red White and Blue.
In a short time, the GoFundMe had raised a generous $6,215 in donations. But the page was shut down soon after when the parties involved got a surprising call from a New York City organization offering to build the Daniels a brand-new ADA-compliant home.
Daniels said he’s been overwhelmed by the news: “This is going to change our lives forever. We’re just so grateful.”
While the organization at the center of this contribution wishes to remain anonymous at this time, Tompkins said they are a respected charitable group with plenty of experience in this type of service.
In addition to ADA compliance, the proposed 2,400-square-foot house will be a one-floor ranch-style home with five bedrooms, 2 ½ baths, and will include smart-home capabilities.
When asked what he was most looking forward to about the new house, Daniels said it was being able to do the little things that people take for granted.
“I haven’t been able to tuck my kids in years. It’s going to be nice to be able to do that,” he said.
But among the new amenities the new house will feature, Daniels said the one he is perhaps most thrilled about is the location. The organization worked with the family to find a lot in the only place they want to call home: the Town of Lewiston.
“This is home. ... We love Lewiston; we’ve always been comfortable here,” Daniels said. “We have no issues here. Our kids love their school. We love the people, we love this town, we love the village. I’m just so glad we get to stay.”
That love for the area only amplified during those early fundraising efforts. Despite the NYC group’s plans, Daniels could not be more grateful to those local organizations, volunteers and generous community members who showed him support.
“It’s really amazing. I’ve never felt so welcomed and at home than I do now,” Daniels said.
He repeatedly thanked both the people who donated and the network of people that shared his story. “I just want to make sure all the people who helped in this get recognized. ... It’s really hard to describe, just to know how much the community has your back.”
While the money raised from the GoFundMe will still go toward the construction of Daniels’ house, the fundraising event that was planned for early March has been cancelled in the wake of the good news. However, raffle items and other donations won’t go to waste. Instead, Daniels said those will all be used for another upcoming fundraiser to benefit local veterans in need. Daniels noted he would like to explore giving back in the future.
“That’s something I’d like to continue to do, to work with other veterans,” he said. “Especially after all this is over; I feel like I owe so much to the community, to these organizations. I want to be that positive vet in the area; I want to do as much as I can.”
Despite everything that he has been through, Daniels, whose personal motto is “no excuses,” has never been one to complain or become despondent. Despite his condition, he’s continued to be a loving husband and an active father for the couple’s four children. He recently returned from Empire State Winter Games in Lake Placid where he played in a sled hockey tournament as part of the Buffalo Sabres Sled Vets Freedom Team. Daniels credited the sport with helping to save his life
“I love the contact, the physicality. This is what recreational therapy is supposed to be like for veterans, and I’m glad we have something like that around here,” he said.
But there’s one other area in Matt’s life that not only provides him with intense joy, but also shows his deep love for WNY. After once again thanking the community members and organizations that have supported him through everything, Matt was asked if there was anything else he wanted people to know. His reply was simple:
“Go Bills,” he said with an audible grin.