‘Local hero’ from Oak Lawn wins wheelchair-accessible van
For Linda Stearns, the feeling of needing a new van has been one that has been in her mind for quite a few years.
But it was when the door fell off her current Dodge Ram Braun Rampvan as she pulled up to a breast cancer mammogram on a snowy day this past winter, she knew she really was in need of one. She said the darn door nearly knocked her over.
In June, the 67-year old Oak Lawn resident’s wishes were finally granted.
Stearns won a brand new Chrysler wheelchair accessible van through the National Mobility Equipment Dealer’s Association’s (NMEDA) Local Heroes Award, which is awarded each year during National Mobility Awareness month.
The van, which is equipped with hand-controls and valued at approximately $70,000, will allow Stearns to not only get around town on her own, but also to have her first ever brand new car.
But despite this, Stearns only views it as an opportunity to help others despite living with Multiple Sclerosis, which has limited Stearns to a motorized scooter, and being a breast cancer survivor.
“I was struck with multiple sclerosis when my daughter was three, and I have had to live with that,” Stearns said. “I am in a motorized scooter, a very expensive and annoying disease (MS) I might add. Then after being struck with MS, if that isn’t bad enough, I was struck with breast cancer, but you have to throw all of those to the side because there are worse people out there than me.”
But it wasn’t her diseases that made Stearns want to give back to the community—she has always done in some fashion or another.
Stearns’ daughter, Gail Ann Stearns-Hussein, wrote an essay on her mother that helped win her the new van.
Stearns-Hussein said that Linda, at the age of 17 was working at Misericordia Chicago and she met Charlie, a baby who was born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus, and was not expected to live past two years old.
But that didn’t stop Stearns.
At the age of 21, Stearns brought Charlie home with her. And in November, Charlie will turn 50 years old, as he currently still resides with Stearns and her family.
Additionally, according to Stearns, she became the unofficial provider of two sets of quadruplets, at the same time, for mothers who needed to work at the time.
For Stearns, the van provides an opportunity to continue to help out Charlie and the hundreds of others she has impacted.
From joining Charlie at Garden Center for the Handicapped located at 8333 Austin Ave. in Burbank to donating her time at her church, Mt. Zion Lutheran Church and Galilee Baptist Church, located at 10957 S. Michigan Ave. in Chicago, Stearns has manage to balance a life full of hundreds of other people in addition with her own family.
“She bakes for PADS, which serves the homeless, attends Honor Flight Chicago to support veterans and rearranges flowers from local funeral homes, which she delivers to patients in hospitals and nursing homes,” Stearns’ daughter wrote in the essay.
“Instead of wasting the flowers when the funeral homes have to throw them out, I collect them and deliver them to patients,” she said. “Some of the patients call me the ‘Flower Lady.’ One man thought I was rich because he thought I bought all of these flowers but I just collect them.’’
Between churches, her own appointments and Charlie’s affairs, Stearns’ time is limited but she said she still wants to help.
She is also free about loaning out her van to others.
Stearns recalled one Thanksgiving when she gave her van to a man who wanted to bring his mother home for the holiday, but did not have the means to do so, so he asked her if he could borrow the van and she obliged completely. She said sometimes she loans the van to people she doesn’t know and doesn’t know when she will get it back.
But it always comes back.
The new Chrysler van will be awarded to Stearns in September after completing courses on driving with hand-controls. For Stearns, the van is an opportunity to continue her efforts to help so many who need help.
“(It is) life-changing,” Stearns said as she described what the van provides her. “A lot of people think I am crazy. They go ‘why do you do this?’ I love to help people.’’