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Big-hearted friends enlarge sick boy’s home

Austin Bennett was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy just days before his seventh birthday. The young boy’s parents had taken him to the University Medical Center for physical therapy to address awkward walking, frequent falls and an inability to jump.

The family was devastated to learn that their smart and active child has the degenerative condition muscular dystrophy.

Austin can still walk, but his enlarged calf muscles and unusual gait are obvious symptoms of the hereditary disease. His cognitive ability won’t be affected — the boy is among the five smartest kids in his grade — but within six months, he will likely become unable to take stairs, said his mother, Karalee Bennett, hoisting the bespectacled boy to her hip.

Within a few years, Austin will be confined to a wheelchair as his body continues to collapse, his doctors predict.

The Bennett family could curse fate for dealing them such a poor hand. Instead, Karalee turned to the only source she could think of for help, her neighbors.

Luckily, the community was up to the challenge.

On Tuesday, eight men met at the Bennett house to pour a concrete ramp to the front door of the Bennett family’s aging, split-level home. The men, like hundreds of neighbors and dozens of businesses before them, were volunteering their time to help the lovable child.

“Honestly, I think it’s kind of a gift from God,” said Karalee Bennett, her eyes tearing. “It’s humbling to know that people love my son as much as I do.”

Community coordinator Janet Jordan, a schoolteacher, has spent her summer organizing the volunteer efforts that will ultimately allow the Bennetts to stay in their home.

Standing in the blazing afternoon sun, Jordan pointed out Arden Hess, owner of Hess Construction, and called him the “super hero” of the project. The man took initial measurements of the Bennett home and has taken off time from building luxury homes to retrofit Austin’s abode.

“I think there are people in this world that need assistance, that have problems I will never have to deal with,” Hess said. “Austin is one of those people, so of course I’m going to help him.”

Hess, Jordan and the team are working to build the ramp and install an elevator in the Bennett’s split-entrance home. They received building permits free from the city when they explained Austin’s situation.

“I get chills just talking about it,” said Aaron Crim, West Valley City spokesman. “For them to be able to stay in a neighborhood that clearly loves them, it’s just fantastic.”

Even with loads of community support and hours of help, the family is still short the building materials and money for the planned home expansion. To donate, visit any Zions Bank branch and ask for the Austin Bennett fund.

“We’ve had youth groups, Scout groups, Ace Disposal, the city all helping us,” said Jordan, who estimated remaining costs in the tens of thousands. “But we still have a lot to go.”

By , Deseret News
Published: Saturday, July 18 2009 12:10 a.m. MDT