- Associated Press - Sunday, May 28, 2017

TUPELO, Miss. (AP) - Cars and trucks often slow down when driving by the intersection of Green and Chestnut streets, because Brad Gillespie and his helpers create a sawdust-coated spectacle.

While maneuvering his wheelchair beneath an event tent set up over his saw, Gillespie builds porch swings, tables, benches, Adirondack chairs and more. Everything’s for sale, and the proceeds benefit Our Artworks, a Tupelo-based nonprofit program for people with mental and physical disabilities.

“We’re not disabled. We’re abled. We’re able-bodied. That’s what I want people to know,” the 42-year-old said. “Maybe we just do it slower than everybody else.”

As far as he knew, Gillespie was a healthy person for the majority of his life. He started having problems in 2010.

“I was skinny and this liver disease made me get real big,” he said. “I was falling a lot.”

The first diagnosis was a bruised liver, which doctors thought was caused by all the shaking around he’d experienced as a truck driver. The eventual diagnosis was liver disease that he’d probably had since birth.

He’s on a transplant waiting list, but he’ll never walk again. The disease attacked the nerves below his waist, and the neuropathy is irreversible.

“I can move my legs, but I can’t feel them,” Gillespie said. “I can’t stand up. It’d be like floating on air.”

He’s quick to smile these days, but the reality of his situation hit hard at first. He mentally circled in on himself.

“When you go through a change like that, you get into a depression. You don’t want to do anything,” he said, “but we encourage people not to do that. We encourage them to get out.”

That’s the gospel according to Gillespie, and he learned it from William Heard, the 42-year-old founder and director of Our Artworks. Injured in a car accident, Heard knows firsthand about the despondency that can follow a loss of mobility.

But Heard found a way out of his swirling emotions, and it’s both as simple and as complicated as it sounds.

“Find out what you can do. Do good at it. Do it. Don’t stop doing it,” he said. “You’ve got to stay busy. Get up early and keep going. That’s it, man.”

The message caught hold with Gillespie about two years ago, and he started thinking about how he and his mother had responded after his 15-year-old brother, Wayne, was killed in a car accident in the ‘90s.

“I think the first thing we made was a magazine rack,” said Delores “Mama D” Gillespie, 70. “Then we made bird houses.”

“It wasn’t a passion of mine then,” Gillespie said. “I did that for about a year, then I started to drive a truck.”

“I had just lost my younger son, and we got closer together,” Mama D said. “I taught him to measure twice, cut once. I’ve got a good son, and I’m proud of him.”

“She gets onto me for being out here working all the time,” he said.

“I do,” she said.

“But she got me started. I wouldn’t do it without her,” he said.

Gillespie usually gets to work by 4 in the morning and finishes around noon, before the heat of the day sets in. He keeps a jug of water nearby, and a wide-brimmed straw hat protects him when he leaves the shade of his tented workspace.

“I was burning with the torch one day, and I forgot it was on,” he said with a laugh. “I pushed my hat up with it. I said, ‘What’s on fire?’ It was my hat.”

He and Heard buy the wood, and people sometimes make donations. Heard’s brother recently bought a farm, and the old barn will be torn down to be converted into tables and chairs.

“Sometimes, students at Our Artworks will paint or stain them,” Gillespie said. “They enjoy doing that.”

Jay Jay Reed, 35, an Our Artworks student and volunteer, drops by Chestnut and Green streets about three times a week to help where he can. And Robert Cayson, a 53-year-old homeless man, makes some spending money by helping out.

“When he gets it built, I stain it,” Cayson said. “If it needs painting, I paint it.”

Cayson and Reed also help customers like Mantachie resident Deborah Brown, who recently stopped by to load up the swings she’d ordered.

“My daughter lives around the corner,” Brown said. “She bought a swing from him. I like what he does. They’re good, solid swings. They’ll last a long time.”

Gillespie said he stays about 15 orders behind. He probably wouldn’t be able to keep up with everything without his wife and bookkeeper, Phillis Gillespie, 42.

“I’m very forgetful. My liver, it causes me memory problems,” he said. “She remembers for me and writes everything down.”

“He taught me to use some of the tools, but not the saw,” she said.

“I don’t let anyone use the saw but me,” he said. “If somebody gets cut, it’s going to be me.”

When he’s not building furniture, Gillespie often travels to different schools with Heard to teach kids what’s possible when someone finds what they’re good at and does that thing.

“We’ve been to schools in Tupelo, Baldwyn, Booneville and Oxford,” Heard said. “We stay busy.”

As for his tables, chairs, swings and the rest, Gillespie has had customers come down from Tennessee and over from Alabama. A church bought six pieces for a nursing home, and another three went down to Jackson.

Jojean Coleman drove a relatively short distance from Verona to get her name on Phillis Gillespie’s list.

“I had been coming by and had been seeing these out but never caught anybody out here to ask them all the prices,” Coleman said.

She wanted a pair of gliders. “One for my house and one for my mama’s,” she said.

Heard said one of their goals is to find a workshop, so Gillespie and the team could have their tools at the ready, rather than taking them outside in the morning and putting them back inside in the afternoon.

A workshop might also provide air conditioning, so Gillespie could put away the tent, as well as the straw hat with the burned spot.

But they probably should think through any changes. An increase in comfort could turn into a marketing disaster.

“Really,” Gillespie said, “I’ve had 25 stop by in a day. We’ll build what they want. It might take us a while, but we’ll do it.”

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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