DETROIT LAKES, Minn. - When Lisa McLeod drives her son to doctor appointments or to family gatherings, she feels like she's putting his safety in jeopardy.
Sixteen-year-old Jake Morgan, who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair, is apprehensive about the older family van.
The wheelchair tie-downs are rusted, a door doesn't shut all the way, duct tape holds together some equipment and there's no air conditioning.
Only when the family rented a newer, fully-equipped vehicle on a recent trip did Jake realize the difference.
"He said, 'You know, mom, I always thought it was your driving, but it's actually the van that makes me nervous,' " McLeod recalled.
"My son doesn't even feel safe," she added. "That's when it hit me."
Others aim to help ease those nerves by raising enough money so the family can buy a safe, reliable van that can fully accommodate Jake and his 300-plus pound motorized wheelchair.
They're organizing a "Wheels for Jake" fundraiser here and hope a little star power will bring in some big cash.
Jake's grandfather, Stan Stelter, secured clothing items worn and autographed by Minot, N.D., native and actor Josh Duhamel and singer-wife Fergie, to be auctioned off during the all-day event at People's Park on June 20.
Stelter is a longtime friend of Duhamel's father, who has a lake home in the Detroit Lakes area.
"We had hoped they (Josh Duhamel & Fergie) would show up, but for us this is a great help," he said.
The goal is to raise $40,000 for a newer Dodge Grand Caravan equipped with the controls, electronics, a wheelchair ramp and appropriate harnesses to keep Jake safe.
Every trip an undertaking
McLeod said based on her, her husband's and her ex-husband's incomes, they don't have the funds to buy a fully-accessible, newer and more reliable vehicle dedicated for Jake's use.
For some time, McLeod drove her son around in a 1980s conversion van.
"When he sat in his wheelchair, his head touched the ceiling," she said.
Then Jake's father, Josh Morgan, purchased the mid-2000s Dodge Grand Caravan they now use to transport Jake.
But with those rusted tie-downs, other problems and the odometer nearing 200,000 miles, McLeod doesn't feel comfortable driving the van to St. Paul for Jake's doctor appointments or to her mom's house in southwestern North Dakota for family gatherings.
"It's really beat up," she said.
When they do take it on the road, a bathroom break for Jake is a 45-minute ordeal.
"Every trip is this huge undertaking," said Shannon LeFebre of Hettinger, N.D., who is McLeod's sister and Jake's aunt.
"It exhausts her and frustrates him," LeFebre said. "I feel like crying every time I think about it," she added.
The two sisters have a special bond; McLeod was once a gestational carrier for LeFebre, who was unable to bear her own children.
LeFebre's daughter is now 4 years old, and LeFebre said she'll never be able to repay her sister for "that great of a gift."
But she's willing to do whatever it takes for McLeod and her nephew, including helping see to it that the family gets a new vehicle.
"Why can't I give them a happy ending, or at least make it easier?" LeFebre said.
Van could bring some independence
McLeod said when Jake was a little boy, he passed all of the well-child checks with flying colors. He walked, ran and played much like any other child.
But then came the red flags. He seemed to stumble often, and his calf muscles were larger than normal.
Diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy in kindergarten, Jake slowly began losing muscle strength and function, and by fifth grade, he was in a wheelchair.
While that physical deterioration continues, Jake is thriving academically and, like any other 16-year-old, he wants to hang out with friends and do the things they do.
That includes going on a mission trip to Ohio in early July, but right now he doesn't have a safe mode of transportation.
McLeod is holding out hope that the fundraising and purchase of a van can somehow come together quickly so he can make the trip.
Another dream for Jake is to be able to drive a vehicle himself, as all of his buddies are doing. He has some use of his arms, and an assessment done at Sanford Medical Center will soon determine whether his reflexes are quick enough to operate a vehicle on his own, with the appropriate mechanical and electronic aids.
It could be a key factor in him having more independence now and when he goes off to college after graduating from high school in 2017.
Jake's aunt really hopes the Detroit Lakes community and beyond comes together for her nephew.
"It's a tragedy that he's losing his muscle control, but his intelligence and personality and soul still have a lot to give," LeFebre said.