Two Blocks North

The Two Blocks North volunteer project, which began as a humanitarian contribution by Portland Chapter members to a man and his family, would end as a humble reminder of life’s fragile balance.


What happened to Brian on a warm spring afternoon in March 2016 could happen to any one of us. It was one of those split second events that forever alters a life and the lives of those touched by one person’s horrific misfortune. In Brian’s own words, he was just, “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” It sounds so cliché, but isn’t that how most accidents happen; one person being in the wrong place at the wrong time? It took 37 year old Brian Duncan, while cycling home from the park that fateful afternoon at the same time one distracted driver chose to race through a red light, to change the lives of many people connected to Brian’s life journey. The forcible contact between vehicle and bicycle threw Brian’s body off the cycle seat and through the driver’s windshield. Now, the rest of Brian’s life would be spent in a wheel chair.

But life goes on. And the generosity of the human spirit kicked in. Complete strangers came together to help the family adjust to the many accessibility challenges Brian would be faced with, just in his own home. After 10 months recovery time in the hospital, and while Brian was still in intense pain, retro-fitting a new home that would accommodate his limited mobility became a priority for the Duncan’s. Brian, his wife Hanne and the couple’s pre-school aged daughter were fortunate to find a ranch style home in the same neighborhood, just two blocks north of their 2-story in Portland, Oregon. Brian had been an avid hiker and cyclist before the accident. So, after learning of his tragic story, the first to assist were architects and building professionals who shared Brian’s passion for the outdoor sports. Now, this labor of love project would become known as “Two Blocks North.”

Corey Omey, architect and partner with Portland based Ernest R. Munch Architecture LLC, brought local planners and designers together with excavators, cement contractors, framers, builders, and finish contractors to create an accessible home for Brian’s new paraplegic reality. He solicited materials from local lumber companies, windows and doors were donated and, yes, paint products would be supplied by Portland PDCA Associate member companies as well.

Halls and doorways were widened for wheelchair accessibility. Bathrooms, showers, sinks and counter tops throughout the home were all refitted for easier access, adding ceiling pulley systems in optimal locations, to hoist Brian’s 6 foot athletic frame. Exterior ramps and walkways were constructed so that father and daughter could resume treasured outdoor playtime together.

Shortly before the interior work was completed, Corey Omey reached out to the Portland Chapter PDCA. Exterior painting was needed to add the finishing touches to this humanitarian project for the Duncan’s. After Corey’s request was forwarded to the Chapter’s Board by their Executive Director, Bridget Davidson, it didn’t take long to return an all-on-board vote to help the family by asking Contractor members to donate labor for the project. Associate member, Miller Paint Company, had already donated paint to add warmth to the newly remodeled interior. Benjamin Moore, another valued Portland Chapter Associate member, would donate enough paint products to coat the 2,500 square foot exterior. Finally, at the September Chapter meeting the plea for participation from local contractor business owners to donate journeyman painters was presented. A target date for the volunteer project would be set for October 27th.

The 2017 exterior season in this area of the country has been extremely busy for painting contractors. But with the weather signaling the near-end of a productive year, six successful PDCA Contractor members felt they could spare an employee or two, even themselves, to the project. Several long-time Chapter members stepped forward. Past President, ESP Painting owner Jeff Sommers, whose company already takes on worthy humanitarian projects annually, was one of the first to come forward. Dion Robesky, co-owner of Epic Painting LLC, brought a company employee with him and donated his own time as well. New member and co-owner Lenny Martin of Mt. Hood Pro Painting also donated his own skills to the day-long undertaking. WILLCO Painting owner and 2017 Chapter President, Primo Williams, sent an employee to pressure wash the home prior to the start date. Another long time Chapter member, owner Ben Balzer of Balzer Painting Company, sent two of his journeymen, Chris and Josh. And Jesse Rugg, owner of First City Painting, a new 2017 PDCA member and soon to serve the Chapter as the incoming 2018 Secretary-Treasurer, also sent two painting professionals, Thomas and Brian, to the project. As co-owner of Epic Painting LLC, I supported these nine big-hearted professionals by supplying donuts and sodas, cleaning gutters in preparation for finish trim, wire brushing the red cement foundation that would be painted body color, and arranging for the paint delivery by Dick’s Color Center, a Benjamin Moore store. After all volunteers arrived, I pointed out a few details of the project and watched as they all jumped into motion. There were no egos exhibited; no one individual ordering the flow of work. As Jeff Sommers noted, “when you get that many guys together to paint a house, it’s like you can read each other’s minds.” Everyone just did what had to be done, quickly and without fanfare, respectful of the family’s privacy. It took one full day to finish the exterior.

The Two Blocks North project, which began as a humanitarian contribution to a man and his family, would end as a humble reminder of life’s fragile balance. Two weeks prior to beginning the exterior painting, Brian Duncan was reported missing. He had been last seen at Duckworth dock near the city’s Steel Bridge which crosses the Willamette River from east to west side into downtown Portland. Finally, three days before the start date, his body was found; police reported the absence of foul play. So, the split second change in life’s course for Brian – a devoted father, husband, son, brother, friend and colleague – would forever alter many more lives as a result. No judgement befalls Brian’s choice. No one can ever know the physical and psychological pain that Brian endured as a result of that life-altering moment in March 2016. The need simply shifted from Brian to his surviving family. When asked if she wanted to postpone the exterior work for a better time, allowing family members time to grieve, Hanne asked that the scheduled date be kept, saying, “It’s what Brian would have wanted.”

But this article isn’t meant to focus entirely on Brian’s journey. Rather, this story is about a handful of average painting professionals – members of the Painting and Decorating Contractors of America, our industry’s largest trade association – and their average, yet selfless, contribution to one family’s need. Too often it’s easier to note the coldness in business entities rather than looking for the humanity. Business owners must always be concerned with their “bottom-line” in order to remain in business. But once in a while it’s nice to take notice that there’s so much more behind the LLC’s and the company logos that can truly make a difference in the lives of others. PDCA members conduct their businesses by a set of standards and a code of ethics. It’s the people behind those written standards and code of ethics, the people behind the board rooms and production rates that make the difference. Thank you, again, to all those who contributed.


NOTE: This article’s author, Debie Henkel, co-owner of Epic Painting LLC and 2017 Portland Chapter Vice President, was privileged to meet Brian, a gentle man with kind eyes and unassuming manner. His wife, Hanne, just as kind, was very appreciative of the numerous details that had been coordinated by Corey Omey as well as the PDCA’s contribution.