Community hopes to raise funds for handicapped-accessible home

The deafening sounds of a peacock's cry in the distance greets one as they drive down Grape Street; past an old horse pasture en route to an aged farm house, the lone residence at the road's dead end.

The rustling of antsy dogs in nearby enclosures stirs up dust as one walks toward the home; a turn of the century residence giving way to its old age.

The back door opens to the bang of a wheelchair against its base, leading to a steep ramp not original to the home; its passenger pushing her way onto the slab.

It's "Miss Sunshine" — Kristi Hartless.

Her inviting smile shines bright in the sun's light, evidence of the nickname given to her by peers. She waves her hand swiftly in the air, welcoming one into her home.

Once inside, seated, the origins of her story become clear. Her home, the one she grew up in, is falling apart. The walls are covered in blankets, behind them cracked plaster free of insulation. Its floors are bare, giving way to uneven concrete and its doorways are narrow. Its ceilings are caving in, and stuffed in its many holes are old newspapers.

Upstairs is home to the unknown, a steep staircase not accessible to Kristi and a place she hasn't visited in 21 years.

She moves methodically, practiced, between narrow passageways, her arms muscling her wheelchair over unlevel concrete throughout her home until its structure doesn't allow her to move any further. Out of her reach is her laundry room, an everyday chore entrusted to her sister, and kitchen cabinets, too high for her outstretched arms to access.

A small wooden board has become the home's primary handicap accessory, which allows Kristi to move from her wheelchair to the home's non-handicap accessible areas, mainly the home's bathtub.

A "country girl" by nature and raised to endure life under any circumstance, Kristi makes the best of her situation as she has done for the past 21 years, the victim of a horse riding accident that left her paralyzed from the chest down.

"You make do with what you have," said Kristi of her home, one that has drawn attention from close friends dedicated to improving living conditions for the lifelong La Junta resident.

"I've seen her struggles," said Kristi's closest friend and co-worker, Jackie Schiferl. "Kristi has never been one to say, 'it would be nice have this or that.' She has always been content and never let it bother her; but her home isn't suitable for any person to live in, let alone one in a wheelchair."

"She's everywhere and everybody knows her," continued Schiferl. "Kristi would probably offer her home to any person in need of shelter if she had one worth sharing. That's how generous she is."

"She has the right attitude and is a great person," echoed Tammi Zimmerman, another close friend of Kristi's. "She would give you the shirt off her back. That's always been Kristi."

A tribute to her generosity, Kristi, a special education teacher at La Junta's intermediate school, has dedicated her life to helping others, a trait she attributes to her late mother.

"She was always there for us," said Kristi of her mother, who raised six children. "She did the best she could."

A volunteer of many sorts, Kristi offers her time to the local 4-H chapter and regularly volunteers at area nursing centers by taking animals to visit residents as part of a pet therapy program.

A former standout track athlete at La Junta High School, Kristi volunteers her time each spring to the sport she loves and has become a welcomed mainstay as a volunteer at the La Junta Tiger Relays.

"Kristi deserves a new home," said Schiferl, who, alongside Zimmerman, has set up funding accounts to help Hartless build a new, handicap accessible home.

An account has been established to raise money to build Hartless a new home at www.gofundme.com. In one month, the account has generated 90 donations totaling $8,270. A bank account has been established in Kristi's name at the State Bank in La Junta and Rocky Ford, which has helped to raise additional funds.

"If the only thing wrong with being paralyzed was that I couldn't walk, life would be a cinch," said Kristi. "I've learned to make do with the struggles that come along with being in a wheelchair, but it blows me away to see the the amount of people out there that care; the amount of people willing to give me a helping hand."

"I am truly grateful for the awesome friends that I have and for the wonderful people who have offered their help. Thank you."

To donate funds to help Kristi build a handicap accessible home, visit www.gofundme.com and enter Kristi's full name, or visit one of the State Bank locations. Donations may also be mailed to Krisiti's home at 508 Grape Street, La Junta, CO, 81050.