‘Impossible’ is not in their vocabulary

Rural builders often enjoy special connections with their communities. But like all relationships, the connection must be tended over time. Public service projects are one way to maintain a vital relationship, provide a boon to communities and afford builders both good public relations and just plain satisfaction.

HB-Chum barn.jpg“It’s been so satisfying, for me and my crew,” says co-owner Keith Pinkelman of Lynnman Construction in Haslett, Mich. The company is putting the finishing touches on a new equine facility for Children and Horses United in Motion (C.H.U.M.), a local nonprofit organization that offers riding therapy for youth with special needs. “And the project also has meant so much to the people we’re helping,” he continues.

Pinkelman acknowledges that public service projects may be difficult for many rural builders who lack the time, the workforce, or the discretionary funds to donate their construction services. “But we’re all in a business where the satisfaction is seeing what you’ve built,” he adds, “and there’s no satisfaction quite like building something that serves others, people whose needs wouldn’t be met without you pitching in to help.”

Though he was motivated by altruism, Pinkelman says his public service project afforded Lynnman Construction some tangible business benefits. “I didn’t give the project away, but did it at cost,” he explains. “But more than that, I made connections with suppliers and subcontractors I might use on our regular projects. In some cases, I made new relationships with companies I’d never used before, and in others cases it strengthened existing relationships.”

HB-framing.jpgOften Pinkelman was “amazed at how people pulled together.” One company donated free carpentry to the C.H.U.M. project. Another firm provided excavation, while still another offered crane and scissor lift service. Donations of lumber, concrete, insulation and overhead doors arrived. Lynnman’s supplier, Wick Buildings, gave a deep discount on the materials package.

Character counts
As the general contractor, Pinkelman was impressed by “how many companies stepped forward and helped, even though the market is slow and they might be struggling. That says something to me about the character of these companies. It gives me confidence to use them in the future.”

Lynnman Construction has received considerable local press coverage in its community. And because the C.H.U.M. facility will be used by people throughout the region, Pinkelman says, “I’m likely to get some word-of-mouth business from people who see the project. That wasn’t the reason we did it. But a business like ours definitely survives through the word of mouth we get in our area.”

Most of Lynnman’s volume comes from horse barns and riding arenas, though the company “can do anything from shops to sheds,” Pinkelman reports, “and light commercial work such as mini-storage facilities and fire stations.” The firm covers central Michigan with a single crew, four paid employees, and some subcontractors. “But we’ve done equine projects of all sizes, from backyard barns to commercial boarding facilities.” Yearly volume can range from six projects to 20, depending on their size, but annual sales consistently run about $1 million.

“We’re fairly typical for a rural builder,” Pinkelman asserts, “and if we can handle a public service project, most other builders can, too.” And for those builders who are active in the equine construction market, he adds, “Building facilities for riding therapy is a great public service project. There are riding therapy centers all over the country and, like most nonprofits, they’re under-funded and have lots of needs.”

What is riding therapy?

Bonnie DePue, an occupational therapist and president of C.H.U.M. Therapeutic Riding in Dansville, Mich., agrees that local centers nationwide need donated help from rural builders to improve their facilities or construct new ones.

“It’s amazing that so many don’t realize that so many of these programs exist,” she notes, “and yet riding therapy centers can range from backyard programs to state universities to hospital campuses. Something they usually have in common is a lack of the full funding and facilities they need.”

Interested builders can search the website of the Denver-based North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (www.harha.org) for therapy centers in their areas. Contact information for individual therapists is available through the web site of the American Hippotherapy Association (www.americanhippotherapyassociation.org).

For his part, Pinkelman and his wife Aimee became acquainted with riding therapy through a personal connection. When their son Joshua was born eight years ago, he experienced multiple seizures and was later diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Within a year, Joshua was enrolled in the C.H.U.M. program.

By the time Joshua passed away at age four, Keith recounts, “He knew three things — his mother, his father and horse therapy. Whether it was the smell of the barn, or being on a horse, the therapy was the only thing that drew a reaction from him. Joshua always lit up when he came for his sessions. The riding therapy kept him moving forward, so that our son was able to do things the doctor thought would be impossible.”

DePue serves clients aged 16 months to 83 years. Riding therapy, she explains, can assist these clients in gaining muscular symmetry as well as improved cognition, memory and sensory perception. More information about “hippotherapy” can be found on DePue’s web site at www.chumtherapy.net.

She has practiced therapeutic riding since 1980 and launched the C.H.U.M. program (“I named it for a horse, Chum, that I had for 31 years,” she says) in 1999. One client donated a 55×75 starter facility on four acres. But as her client base grew from 65 to more than 150 riders, the facility was outgrown. The lack of an indoor arena, tack room and accessible bathrooms created barriers for her clientele.

In May 2006 DePue moved the program to her own six acres in Dansville. “But as a nonprofit,” she relates, “it made no sense to board our horses elsewhere and then haul them to our property for riding sessions. In addition to the cost, that would put stress on the horses and present safety issues.” So she got an architect to help draw up her “dream” facility, only to discover her complete wish list would cost $1.3 million.

Help from some friends

Pinkelman learned of C.H.U.M.’s need for a new facility and agreed to help. And when Wick Buildings offered the materials package at a steep discount, the cost was low enough so DePue and her husband could finance the purchase with a second mortgage on her home. “That allowed the basic structure to be erected,” she explains, “and now we can rent the building to C.H.U.M. In turn, because C.H.U.M. is a nonprofit, it can accept donations to furnish to the facility.”

Lynnman Construction did its part not only by performing the general contracting, but by using its design/build construction method to pare down the costs. “Doing this as a design/build project was a real key to its success,” Pinkelman affirms. “Bonnie DePue wanted the most functionality possible for the budget available. By bringing the design and construction together from the earliest phases of the project, we could bring our general contractor’s knowledge to the table and review the constructability of different design options. The design/build approach also allows for master planning so C.H.U.M. can expand the facility over time.”

Yet even with effective coordination of design and construction, the 9,000-square-foot C.H.U.M. project presented a number of challenges. “In some ways, building a public service project is like building a church,” Pinkelman observes. “There are a lot of stakeholders to consider, and the scheduling has to wait as the necessary funding comes in for each phase. For example, since our excavator was donating his time, we had to wait two weeks until he could come and do the job.”

Then, too, an equine facility for a special needs clientele has many unique requirements. An entrance canopy enables wheelchair-bound clients to be unloaded out of the rain. “And when wheelchairs are kept out of mud,” DePue adds, “they track a lot less dirt back into families’ homes when they return from their riding sessions.”

An indoor arena permits clients to ride in winter without exposure to the intense cold. Kickboards around the arena keep horses away from the walls so riders’ spurs do not get caught. Installation of video cameras helps DePue do research and tailor her clients’ treatments.

“For a successful public service project like this,” DePue advises, “you need a builder who is both dedicated and flexible. Things can change in midstream according to how donations come in and how the needs develop. This isn’t just a cut-and-dried building. It’s a people-project, driven by faith and made possible by raising hope and creating community.”

Pinkelman shares that sentiment. He says, “God has a way of working, bringing so many people together on this project — people who truly went the extra mile. This is the kind of public service that rural builders should be doing for their communities — and the good thing is they’ll find a lot of other people who are also willing to pitch in and help make it happen.”

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