Customizing With Care

By Brad McEwen

Certainly everyone views things differently, but I’ve got to say I didn’t give it much thought the other day when my wife called me in a slight panic wanting to know if I could pick up the kids because she was running late. I just slid behind the wheel and drove over to the in-laws to pick them up.

A few days after, having dealt with five straight days of excruciating lower back pain, I finally just made an appointment and popped over to the doctor’s office one afternoon during a break from work. It took me all of three minutes to walk to my truck and drive over.

For the better part of 25 years, since I was first granted that magical ticket to freedom at the Dougherty County DMV, if there was somewhere I needed, or wanted, to be I just jumped in the driver’s seat and took off down the open road.

Until recently I hadn’t really considered how lucky I am, and have been, to have that kind of freedom. Quite truly I take it for granted that as long as I’ve got gas in my tank I can roll out.

Sure I complain about traffic, wish I had a newer ride, and vehemently lament what are truly some measly Albany commute times, but by and large those are fairly insignificant issues compared to those experienced by the customers of Quail Country Customs, an Albany business which in my opinion provides more than just modified vehicles to people with handicaps and their families.

I recently sat down with Cole Walden, who, along with his partner Joe Butler, has owned Quail Country Customs since 1999, to learn more about the small business which is having a profound impact on the lives of many South Georgia residents.

“This is a for-profit business, but it’s really about the customer,” Cole told me. “You have to take into consideration who you are serving. Basically anybody who has a disability that has a mobility issue, that’s who we’re serving. That’s a wide spectrum of people.”

Who those people really are, Cole explained, are elderly moms and dads who have gotten to the point where they can’t visit the grocery store without the assistance of a power chair and need a way to get that chair to the store.

They are veterans—men and women, many in their 20s and 30s—who have given not just part of their lives but parts of their bodies in the service of our country who need a reliable way to get around.

They are moms who have devoted their lives to handicapped children and are desperate for help getting those children to a doctor’s visit or to school—folks like Albany resident and Quail Country Customs client Missi Durham.

I recently spoke the mother of four children, one of which is a handicapped boy nearing the age of 12, and was riveted by the tale she told me about how the company, and specifically “Mr. Joe,” had changed her life.

Missi explained that until recently her son had been small enough where she could simply lift him into a seat (not unlike a child’s car seat) in her SUV and then lift his chair into the back of her vehicle, but that recently changed.

After talking with Joe about options, which included potentially purchasing a 15 passenger van to accommodate the entire family, Missi said the family followed Joe’s suggestion to have their existing vehicle customized to meet their need.

“I would lift the chair and load it myself and he told me that I’d be in a wheelchair myself if I kept doing that,” Missi said. “Well he got a new chair and I couldn’t lift it. (Quail Country Customs) installed a lift and a chair that would come out of our vehicle for our handicapped son.”

That modification certainly met the family’s need for transporting their son, but the overall effect of that customization was much more profound.

“I was stuck,” Missi said of her circumstance. “I couldn’t go anywhere by myself with him. I was homebound with a child. I had to completely depend on someone else if I needed to go somewhere.

“Now we’re completely independent. If I need to go somewhere with him we can. We can go to the store or the mall if we need to.

“When they got done I felt like a burden had been lifted from my shoulders. I felt free.”

At its heart that freedom was achieved because the folks at Quail Country Customs not only listened to the family and empathized with their plight, they were able to design a specific solution to address the family’s need, which is an approach they take with every client.

“Everybody that comes to us has a somewhat unique situation and everybody’s just a little bit different in terms of what they need and what they want to get done,” said Cole. “But they all have mobility issues. They have doctor’s appointments they need to get to and they can’t get to the doctor’s office. Some just want to get out and get a little wind in their hair.”

“We’re here to help them meet those needs, whatever they are.”

Because those needs are unique and because each person’s handicap can be vastly different, Cole said the company can offer a wide variety of solutions to help them achieve their mobility goals, including adding modifications to existing vehicles, like they did for Missi and her family, or providing fully converted vehicles (mostly vans) with lowered floors and automated ramps that allow access to people confined to chairs.

“The simplest kind of modification is somebody comes to us with a vehicle and they strictly just want to transport their power chair,” said Cole. “Then you get into when somebody wants to load a person while they're still in the chair and that's a whole other ball of wax. In order to do that most of the time you have to have what they call a structurally modified vehicle.

“There’s so many different levels of it. There’s a lot of variables.”

Those variables, Walden explained, depend entirely on the customer’s handicap and what that customer needs the vehicle for, which is why the Quail Country Customs team has to have a keen understanding of their clients.

Customers confined to a wheelchair obviously need a van with a lowered floor to allow access, but the depth of that conversion (either 10 inch or 12 inch) would depend on the person’s height. In several of the converted van cases Quail Country Customs is providing a vehicle for a caretaker who simply needs to be able to transport a handicapped loved one, in which case the vehicle’s controls would remain the same and the modification would allow the caretaker to simply position the disabled person either in the passenger area or the back area and then properly secure them, often using a system of straps to hold the chair in place.

In other cases, however, the vehicles are being modified to allow the handicapped individual to actually drive the vehicle themselves, meaning that in addition to providing access to the vehicle, the company has to reconfigure how the vehicle is operated, which calls for the installation of special controls for operating the gas and brakes by hand.

“If you’ve got somebody that’s permanently in a chair and from the waist up and they’re fine, their dexterity is good and their legs just don’t work, they can actually hit a button and the ramp comes down and they can get in the vehicle,” explained Cole. “We remove the driver’s seat out of it and we put in a securement system for their chair (to keep it locked in place), then they can come up front, lock in, put on their shoulder and lap harnesses and off they go.

“And some of these people that are good with it, good with their chair, they can get up there and get going about as fast as you and I can.  They whip up there, whip in there, crank it up and rock and roll.”

In addition to providing vehicles with those major modifications, Cole said Quail Country Customs can also provide additional features specific to each person. For example, Cole said for some people who “are rigid in their chair and don’t have a lot of flexibility” the company can install steering wheel and gear shift extensions. They can also customize the steering wheel itself depending on what works best for the operator.

“There’s so many different combinations and everybody’s got just a little bit different need,” he said. “You’ve just got to kind of figure out what they want. You just have to understand their needs.”

Although Quail Country Customs and its three technicians—one in the company’s Albany location, one in its Byron location and one that floats between the two—have the experience and know-how to customize solutions for each client, in today’s world, there are certain government regulations in place to makes sure that customers are properly certified to be allowed to operate motor vehicles, meaning the company also has to provide guidance on navigating some of those guidelines.

“There’s a lot of rules and regulations,” said Cole. “You have to have a driving evaluation done by a certified evaluator. It’s a big deal.”

In addition to dealing with the government on certifications for drivers, Cole said Quail Country Customs also has a lot of dealings with the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.

In fact, a large part of the company’s business, for a segment Walden, Butler and the rest of the staff are honored to serve, is providing vehicles to veterans. Because the VA offers a vehicle grant and other types of funding to qualifying veterans, Quail Country Customs is able to give disabled veterans a level of freedom they had lost due to some type of injury, usually suffered in defense of our country.

Walden gave a glimpse of his feelings toward these selfless servants when he specifically mentioned a current customer—who, like many of the veterans the company has helped lately, had been wounded in a recent conflict—and how much he enjoyed being able to help him regain his mobility.

“I tell you, we see a surprising number of Afghanistan veterans; there’s a lot of them out there,” said Cole. “They’re younger, most of them, and most of them have a really good attitude. We had one that got hit by an IED that got both of his legs.  He had a friend who got hit and had both legs amputated and then a month later it happened to him. But these two guys I talked to them the other week and they were out on a lake fishing.

“It’s an awesome feeling to help somebody like that. Especially when they’ve got such a good attitude about what happened to them. They’re not feeling sorry for themselves. They’re just trying to get what they need to keep them rolling man.”

Walden said the folks at Quail Country Customs are humbled by how appreciative their customers are after they’ve regained some mobility and that they never lose sight of the fact that what they’re doing has an important impact on somebody’s life.

That feeling comes through loud and clear when Cole talks about the service aspect of the business, which requires them to provide assistance around the clock.

“If you don’t have a whole lot of empathy for people you’re not going to do very well in this business,” he said matter-of-factly. “We feel like we’re giving people the best possible product or service and that means something to these people. We offer 24/7 service to our customers. If a handicapped person breaks down on the side we’ve got to help them.

“There’s a lot of disabled people that are very sensitive to temperature change, mainly they’re sensitive to heat and can’t get overheated. They can’t deal with being broken down on the side of the road in 98 degree heat. For them, they’re in a life-threatening situation. We’ve got to be there for them.”

Although he isn’t one to dwell on it, I could tell it means a lot to Cole personally when the company is able to deliver something so meaningful to a client. He and the Quail Country team very much understand the importance of the service they are providing.

“When we deliver these vehicles to them they’re overjoyed; it definitely changes their lives,” said Cole. “They’re constantly dealing with things, dealing with difficulties. If you can provide them with the thing they need to take care of their child that’s a big deal to them. If they can get that box checked off then mama loves you.

“When you change somebody’s life, it makes you feel good.”

Although Quail Country Customs has to deal with the same issues as any small business, Cole said the team tries to always keep in mind the company’s core mission.

“We want to sell people a dependable product,” he said. “We want them to know that they can depend on us for service in the future and make sure they get exactly what they need. You have to be sure that whatever product you’re selling matches up to their particular disability.

“We want to do business honestly and with integrity. I like to be able to sleep at night. You have to worry about your bottom line but it’s not always about your bottom line.

“You have to do what’s right.”

That level of commitment to doing things the right way is certainly having an impact.

Throughout our conversation Missi was overcome with gratitude, telling me repeatedly how much she appreciated Joe and the crew Quail Country Customs and how proud she was to let others know how the company had helped her family.

“They are awesome,” she said. “(Joe) went way over and beyond for us. I would walk to the ends of the earth for him. He is a special person.

“They’ve done so much to help my family. They are amazing.”

Connect with Brad - 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen