Wake Weekly (June 2008)

The Wake Weekly, Wake Forest, N.C., Thursday, June 12, 2008 (page 5A)

Constructing a new life for nine-year-old
Local contractor donates time and materials to renovate handicapped boy's home.
BY LESLIE RUDD, Wake Weekly Staff Writer

The Graf family is stuck between a rock and a hard place. The Wake Forest parents face a daily challenge caring for their partially-paralyzed son Nicky.

"We couldn't get services because our income was too high. But it's not high enough to do it on our own," explains Kristie Graf, 9-year-old Nicky's mother.

Paralyzed on his left side from a fall when he was 20 months old, Nicky continues to thrive in Wake Forest.

"He tries his very best and he always has something for you," Kristie said. "You could be having the worst day and he'll give you a big smile and that all changes. Because he was injured so early, he doesn't know the bad stuff."

What amazes Kristie and her husband Chris about their son is his impact on other children. Nicky's involvement in Boy Scouts enlightened his peers to put the needs of others first. "On a camping trip, the Scout leader told the boys that they had to care for Nicky and help him out," Chris said. "It really opened their eyes. He's helping kids learn to become other-centered."

Nicky attends Wake Forest Elementary; his charming perspective continually surprises his parents. "He's learning sarcasm," said Chris. "I can't figure out where he gets that from."

His parents want him to have every opportunity for physical and mental growth. Nicky participates in the Dream League, Helping Hooves and Special Olympics. He sings in the school choir and, said Kristie, "My son is having spelling tests!"

As Nicky continues to flourish socially, he also continues to grow physically. And accommodating this tall, freckle-faced boy at home becomes a challenge.

A very basic need — a handicapped-accessible bathroom — came to the attention of neighbors Leigh Anne and Aaron Naas. "Nicholas is getting to be a big boy and his parents can't move him around well," said Leigh Anne, cofounder of the NathanCan Foundation. The foundation, established in their son's memory, helps families with ill or disabled children.

The Naas family submitted requests on behalf of their foundation to Oprah Winfrey and the Koinonia Foundation for assistance. When they heard no response, everyone remained motivated.

"We recognize that the bathroom is the first need, so we called Williams Custom Building for estimates to send in with grant applications. We almost couldn't believe it — they decided to do it for free," Leigh Anne said.

Business owner David Williams didn't think twice about donating labor and materials. "We're fortunate for the things we have, and if we were ever at a point where we needed help, I know there's a community here to help. Right now, we're in a position to help them and we want to do this for the Grafs," he said.

Williams has subcontractors assisting with the costs of the $15,000 renovation.

"We're glad to be able to help. They're good people," Williams said.

The Graf family is overwhelmed by the offer. "We didn't expect anything like this. We couldn't ask for anything more," said Kristie, beaming, with tears in her eyes.

The Grafs formed a kinship with the Naas family, having known their late son Nathan well. 'We almost lost our son and we came about as close to understanding the loss of a child as anyone can," said Chris. "The way they have reacted to it is incredible."

Chris remembers the last time he saw Nathan. "We were waiting with Nicky for the bus and Nathan and Leigh Anne and his nurse came outside and waited with us. And Nathan had the best time just watching Nicky get on the bus," he said.

Their reaction to Nathan's illness was like an involuntary reflex. "There's not a lot either one of us wouldn't do for someone else. Everybody helps in their own way," said Chris. "We did what we could for Aaron and Leigh Anne to allow them to take care of what they need to do." To the Grafs, taking care of their yard work and bringing over dinner is instinctive.

Leigh Anne and Aaron Naas are happy to give back. "We understand that they're in an incredibly stressful situation and we try to alleviate that," Leigh Anne said. "We were happy people could help, but no one could give us what we wanted — to have our child be healthy again. But at least we can help relieve some of the extra stress."

Since the Naases incorporated the NathanCan Foundation in November, the cause has attracted the attention of medical professionals and concerned local residents.

"We're shocked that people have been so willing to help," Aaron said.

"It certainly seems to have captured the imagination of people. One of our biggest donors prefers to remain anonymous," Leigh Anne said.

Local social workers routinely refer families to the foundation and businesses offer support.

Moving from cancer research to the NathanCan Foundation after her son's battle with brain cancer is more satisfying for Leigh Anne Naas. "Having lived through this, I feel I can help in a way I couldn't in my other job. I'm able to utilize networking that I've been doing all my life — it's all been building up to this," she said.

For more information on the NathanCan Foundation, contact Aaron and Leigh Anne Naas at 630-8008 or www.nathancan.org