November 25. 2012 8:30PM

Raymond man gets a lift from Paralympian's parents

Union Leader Correspondent

Bruce Gatchell of Raymond waits to be loaded into a wheelchair van loaned to him by the parents of Exeter Paralympian swimmer Victoria Arlen. (JASON SCHREIBER PHOTO)
RAYMOND - The holiday season is looking a lot brighter for Bruce Gatchell.

Gatchell, who has cerebral palsy, has been house-bound since August when the exhaust system went in his aging wheelchair van and he couldn't afford a new one, but he got a huge helping hand last week from the parents of Exeter's Paralympic gold medalist, Victoria Arlen.

Larry and Jacqueline Arlen learned about the 33-year-old Raymond man's dilemma and offered up their daughter's wheelchair van to get Gatchell out of the house until enough money is raised for a new one.

The Arlens no longer needed the van for transporting Victoria because the 18-year-old athlete has been able to transfer into a car for the past year and a half. While Jacqueline Arlen still drove the van around because it was one of two vehicles owned by the family, Jacqueline said she felt Gatchell needed it more.

The 2001 Chrysler Town and Country nicknamed "Bella" by the Arlens has 140,000 miles on it and won't last a lot longer, but it's a temporary fix that will allow Gatchell to continue enjoying activities outside the house, like swimming, training for wheelchair races in the Special Olympics, and volunteering at Bethany Church in Greenland.

"This is a means to an end. I think it needs to be stressed that this is to get them by until he can get a new one," Jacqueline said.

The van was delivered to Gatchell on Nov. 14.

"When I saw his smile my heart was bursting," Jacqueline said.

The day after the van arrived, Josh Jones, who works for One Sky Community Services in Portsmouth and helps care for Gatchell during the day, got behind the wheel and took him to Synergy in Exeter to swim.

"It was awesome. We felt like we were out of the hole," Jones said.

It was the first time Gatchell was able to swim at Synergy since the old van was parked.

"It was good," Gatchell said with a smile Wednesday, shortly before being wheeled into the van to head off to Bethany Church to wipe down tables and put out the salt shakers.

Efforts began earlier this year to raise money to purchase a newer used van for Gatchell, whose parents have died and now lives with his sister, Lisa Duford. She's the only family member he has to care for him and has been trying to raise money with help from Jones.

Gatchell's old 1996 Dodge Ram 2500 wheelchair van purchased by Gatchell's mother before she died in 2006 still sits in the driveway. Duford decided not to invest money in repairing it because of its age.

Some $8,500 has been raised through donors, but a newer used van is estimated to cost between $25,000 and $30,000.

"To know that people are out there to help me like this is pretty amazing," said Duford, who was stunned when she learned that the Arlens were willing to help out.

The helping hand seemed fitting since Victoria Arlen and Gatchell share a passion for swimming and face the daily struggles of life in a wheelchair.

Arlen suffers from a rare neurological disorder that nearly killed her before her condition improved to a point where she was able become a Paralympic swimmer who took home three silver medals and a gold from the 2012 Paralympic Games in London. She also set a world record for the Women's 100-meter freestyle, S6 category, with a time of 1:13.33.

Gatchell is a member of a Special Olympics team in Exeter who is determined to bring home a gold medal in the wheelchair races in next summer's games.

In the meantime, Duford and Jones will continue finding ways to raise more money for a permanent van so they can return the 2001 van to the Arlens.

"After we're done we'll work together to find another family that can use it," Duford said.

That's exactly what the Arlens have in mind.

"We want this to be the gift that keeps on giving," said Jacqueline Arlen, who along with Victoria, plans to help Gatchell continue the fundraising campaign.

Duford will hold a cut-a-thon on Dec. 2 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at her workplace, Salon 27 in Raymond. The event will also include gift baskets, gift certificates and other giveaways.

All proceeds from the event will go toward the van replacement. For more information and to book an appointment, call 895-3818.

Anyone interested in donating to Gatchell's wheelchair van fund can make checks payable to "Wheelchair Van for Bruce" c/o People's United Bank, 55 Main St., Raymond, N.H., 03077.