Until a catastrophic car accident changed their lives, Massachusetts residents Marcia and Harold Rhodes didn't realize how much they would come to need and value the community around them.
Before the crash that left Marcia a paraplegic, when he was a technology consultant and his wife an antiques collector, they had never thought about such issues. They didn't understand how much could be done to help the people in their town of Milford.
Now they are giving back, funding playgrounds for kids with special needs, and helping families coping with disabilities.
On Jan. 9, 2002, a 40-ton tractor-trailer crashed into the rear of Marcia's car when traffic was stopped by a police officer for a roadside work project on Route 109 in Medway.
The impact left her a paraplegic, and began what would become a 10-year odyssey for the family through the civil court system. In 2012, after five trials, the family received a judgment of about $23 million against the truck's insurer, Harold Rhodes said.
With some of these resources, the Rhodes have for the past two years made donations to local causes that focus on health care and the needs of those with disabilities.
Their community giving recognizes what they initially didn't see before the crash, said Harold Rhodes — the needs of people who are managing challenging, difficult lives.
Among other things, the gifts have aided a center for children with autism and other special needs, and have provided playground equipment for disabled children.
"We have an obligation to help the community," Rhodes said. "Being aware of these things made both of us see there are a lot of folks out there who need help."
In February 2013, Tina Perriello and her business partner were trying to raise money to open SenseAbility Gym, an indoor play area with specialized sensory equipment for children with special needs. Harold Rhodes contacted her, she said, and they spoke about the concept.
The Rhodeses gave the Hopedale gym $10,000 in its first year, or one-quarter of the start-up costs, Perriello said. Since then, he's become a trusted adviser to the business. "It was critical," she said of their contribution. "Without it, I don't think we would have opened on time."
Immediately after the crash, which took place near the Milford line, Marcia Rhodes was taken to Milford Regional Medical Center. Harold Rhodes said he credits the hospital with saving her life not just that once, but three times since, when health crises related to her spinal-cord injury sent her back to the emergency room.
Given the amount of time the family spent in the facility, they formed relationships with the staff and met other patients as well.
What if Milford didn't have a hospital? What if the crash happened one or two towns farther away from the medical center? These were the kinds of questions that Rhodes said he didn't think about before the crash, when he was a technology consultant and his wife an antiques collector.
They have a daughter, who was 14 at the time. Her classmates and teachers soon knew what had happened, Rhodes said. When she had trouble coping at school, administrators and teachers took care of it with sensitivity, he said, letting her leave a classroom if she needed time.
One of the first donations they made, he said, was to the Shining Star Early Childhood Education Center, part of the Milford public school system, which was trying to complete a playground with equipment accessible to children with disabilities. The director spoke to Harold Rhodes about what they were trying to accomplish.
"So I talked with my wife, and we were the majority giver," he said. "For $15,000 to $20,000, these kids now had a safe playground. How cool is that?"
Shortly afterward, Rhodes joined the town's Commission on Disability, an appointed panel that advises local officials on access needs. He began to learn about the community's needs for improved handicapped access.
The town hoped to place an accessible fishing pier at Louisa Lake, which would allow people with mobility problems to fish from a level platform, rather than trying to access the sloped bank. The Rhodes family provided $9,000 for that.
Their largest gift recognizes the care Marcia continues to receive at Milford Regional.
The Rhodes have contributed $100,000 to the hospital's building campaign for a new emergency room and upgrades to its intensive care unit, and have made a commitment for another $250,000, Harold said. They also provided a dollar-for-dollar match for donations in a campaign intended to increase the hospital's reach through social media.
Martin Richman, vice president of philanthropy at Milford Regional, said the hospital is grateful for the couple's generosity in support of its expansion fund-raising campaign. The Rhodes have "a desire to make sure we are successful in building this new building," he said.
Harold Rhodes is completing a memoir about the crash and its aftermath.
It is hard to view the accident as creating something good, he said, "but it opened up my eyes. It resulted in my seeing things I'd never really seen before, and being passionate about it.
"We have to support the hospital and all of these other programs. It's up to Marcia and me, and others who can."
Mary Macdonald can be reached at marymacdonald3@ aol.com.
Photo: Girl at new playground enjoys new equipment as a result of the judgement.
Photo 2: Milford resident Harold Rhodes says that he and his wife have a new appreciation of larger needs in the community.
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