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Knocking down obstacles to faith: First Baptist seeks funds for wheelchair lift

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In his sermons, the Rev. Jeffrey E. Smith sometimes calls the First Baptist Church, with its iconic clock tower, “the Lighthouse on the Square.”

He tells his congregation that the church is a beacon for the people of Watertown.

And to the lighthouse they come — the poor, the disheartened, the hurting, the half-penitent, the wholly-reformed, some of them in threadbare suits, some of them in biker leather, some of them walking and some in wheelchairs.

“We get them up in here by any means necessary,” the Rev. Mr. Smith said.

But the wheelchairs are a problem.

For eight years, the Rev. Mr. Smith has been trying to find the money to install a wheelchair lift to bring disabled members of his flock into the sanctuary.

So far, it has not gone well.

The church, once wealthy, has fallen on hard times.

“Our congregation is community-based, fixed-income, low-income and no income,” the Rev. Mr. Smith said. “We give out pretty much what we bring in other than paying the bills. There’s great need in our community.”

The Rev. Mr. Smith is looking to install a limited use, limited application, or “LU/LA,” elevator lift — a piece of equipment that resembles an elevator in purpose, but is made of light weight materials and designed for only one or two passengers.

But the church is caught in a unique situation.

Because the church’s congregation is broadly based but far from affluent, money for capital projects such as wheelchair lifts is scarce, and because it is a church, it doesn’t qualify for many of the public funds ordinarily available for accessibility projects.

What makes the church’s financial situation so precarious is also what makes it so vital.

“If there’s one pastor in town who exemplifies ‘you minister to those who are hurting,’ it is Pastor Smith,” said the Rev. Frederick G. Garry, pastor of First Presbyterian Church.

The Rev. Mr. Smith ministers to those in prison and in the street, according to the Rev. Mr. Garry.

Among the church’s community and outreach programs are its jail ministry, which includes weekly worship services, Bible study, substance abuse recovery meetings and counseling at the Metro-Jefferson Public Safety Building; homeless support; chaplain services at Samaritan Medical Center and Samaritan Keep Home; general counseling services for soldiers and families; and weekly Bible study sessions at the Watertown Urban Mission.

The First Baptist Church was one of the first churches to support the Urban Mission capital campaign and though the contribution was modest, the gesture meant a lot, the Rev. Mr. Garry said.

“Pastor Smith is always in the lead in terms of giving and helping,” the Rev. Mr. Garry said. “I hope they come to us with what they’re planning because I know First Presbyterian would want a part of it.”

The project has support from others in the community as well.

Edward G. Olley Jr., a principal architect with GYMO Architecture, Engineering and Land Surveying, has been working with the Rev. Mr. Smith on the design of the wheelchair lift.

The lift, which would consist of a 5-foot-by-6-foot platform and a hydraulic drive system, would be installed at the southwest corner of the church, where it faces Public Square.

On the State Street side of that entrance, the vestibule of the church opens right onto the street, with no step to climb to get into the building.

The lift, which would have 14 feet of rise from the basement of the church to the sanctuary level, would be able to descend two or three feet to provide access to the fellowship hall and up the rest of the way to provide access to the sanctuary, Mr. Olley said.

Mr. Olley estimated the cost of the project to be between $40,000 and $50,000.

A significant portion of the cost is attributable to the need to remove some walls in order to accommodate the lift.

Despite the difficulties that the project has had in securing funding, Mr. Olley said the actual design and installation of the lift would be relatively straightforward.

“Eliminating barriers to the disabled is not new. It’s at the forefront of every conversation in my world,” Mr. Olley said. “The importance is certainly well-documented ... Structurally, mechanically, it can be done.”

Diane H. Leonard, a grant professional and owner of D.H. Leonard Consulting, believes the project has a shot.

Mrs. Leonard and the Rev. Mr. Smith are scheduled to meet early next year to see what avenues have already been tried.

From there, Mrs. Leonard said she will have a better idea about how to approach the project.

Mrs. Leonard said the church could pursue funding from organizations that fall into one of three categories: accessibility initiatives, fellow church organizations and historic buildings.

The church is part of the Public Square Historic District, according to Kenneth A. Mix, planning and community development coordinator for the city of Watertown.

Although the historic building designation could be a help, it could also be a hindrance. Historical buildings must meet stricter requirements when renovations are done, which can sometimes drive up the cost of a project, according to Mr. Olley

The Rev. Mr. Smith said that he has reached out to the office of Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, for help in the past.

Sen. Ritchie’s spokeswoman, Sarah Compo, confirmed that the pastor had spoken to the senator’s office, but that lack of “member item” funding caused the senator to give him some recommendations about where else he could seek funding.

The Rev. Mr. Smith also said he sought assistance from Transitional Living Services of Northern New York and the Jefferson County Historical Society to no avail.

And a meeting with then-state Sen. Darrel Aubertine never materialized.

“But I understand that, because he’s busy. They’re busy people,” the Rev. Mr. Smith said.

In the end, the project may yield to the reverend’s determination.

“Oh, we’re going to get it done, one way or another. Because the people here have a need,” the Rev. Mr. Smith said.

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