By Aitana Yvette Mallari
When Robert Reed’s teammate broke his wheelchair during basketball practice, the timing couldn’t have been worse. “We had to go to the tournament the next day,” said Reed, a membership and outreach specialist for Ability360.
The next morning, they headed to Leeden Wheelchair Lift and Sport, a hidden, simple, stucco building in Tempe. Although general manager Jeff Ramsdell was swamped with customers, he fixed the player’s chair and the team boarded its flight immediately. “He probably had a lot of things he could have been doing at that moment, but he understood that if we didn’t have that chair, we wouldn’t have that player for the weekend,” Reed said.
A wheelchair is an extension of a person. It’s a long-term investment akin to buying a car as unique as you are. This makes finding the right shop critical. Years ago, Lee, Ed, and Dennis fused their names and created Leeden, a business that not only repairs wheelchairs, but features a plethora of adaptive equipment for sports like cycling, waterskiing, basketball and rugby.
Dennis hired Ramsdell in 1993. Since then, Ramsdell dedicated himself to making sure every customer left Leeden with the right fit. “I try to put myself in their place,” he said. “If I wasn’t comfortable, I wouldn’t be happy with it.” To him, the attention to detail and making sure the job’s done right is what makes Leeden stand out from other businesses—especially with athletes, who are “a lot more particular about their equipment.”
While Leeden doesn’t accept insurance, the quality of service makes it worth the cash-only policy. “He’s not there to sell you something,” Reed said. “He wants to find what’s best for you.”
“Ramsdell helps everyone from competitive athletes to the grandma who just wants to ride her bike with the grandkids,” said Jo Crawford, program coordinator for the Barrow Connection at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center.
In the Barrow Connection Peer Mentorship program, those with new injuries are paired with mentors who have already adapted to life with a neurological disability. According to Crawford, Leeden was and still is the go-to place for newcomers, comparing the vibe of the store to the coffee shop on ‘Friends’. Customers see the rugby or basketball players, get to talking and find out about their lives; some are married, some are enrolled in college, many stay active. “They start talking and it’s an automatic, great feeling. It sparks life—that’s what Leeden does,” says Crawford.
Leeden looks less like a sterile medical store and more like an auto body shop.
Tires adorn the walls of the showroom. In the garage, a dusty truck cradles a mountain of tangled scrap metal. Classic rock plays from old-school analog radio speakers nestled in the shelves above. It’s a mechanical mess that any tinkering dad would approve of, overflowing with energy that makes it such a positive experience for first-time wheelchair users.
Along with the Barrow Connection, Ramsdell works with multiple adaptive sports teams, and is a longtime sponsor of “Day on the Lake”, an event that brings the whole community together via adaptive watersports.“Jeff, to me, is the true definition of a good man,” said Crawford. “If you ever hear of a man of the year award, I would nominate Jeff in a heartbeat.” She started to tear up. “I can’t tell you how blessed we are to have him.”
Ramsdell’s 23 years of experience has turned him into a winning combination of tailor and mechanic. Give him five minutes to change a tire and he’ll have it done in four. Give him a heads up that a chair needs to be adjusted and he’ll show up on the sidelines.
But if given the choice between fame and sliding under the radar, he would choose the latter every time. “That’s just me, that’s just my personality,” Ramsdell said. “[The attention is] not why I do it. If I can make a difference and I don’t have to draw attention to myself making a difference, then the world’s a better place.”
Aitana Yvette Mallari is an online journalist and a student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. She lived in the Middle East, Asia and both coasts of the US. Aitana was a North America and Tech Correspondent for UK news site The Global Panorama. You can find her at Ability360, probably wearing a skeleton hand.