Lee Ky calls on Reedley community support

Reedley resident Lee Ky hopes to replace her wheelchair-accessible van, which is adapted to fit her driving needs

Lee Ky smiles as she talks about how she drives her van in front of her friend’s home in Reedley Sept. 27, 2023. (Serena Bettis)
Serena Bettis
Published September 29, 2023  • 
11:30 am

REEDLEY – Every newly licensed driver or car owner knows that special feeling — that sense of freedom — that strikes when they get behind a wheel, ready to set out for whatever destination they choose.

Longtime area resident and wheelchair user Lee Ky may lose that freedom if she cannot find a way to purchase a new vehicle and all of the adaptive equipment she needs to be able to drive. With the help of good friends, friends from Ky’s church of attendance have set up a GoFundMe page to ask for assistance with replacing her 28-year-old van; the cost of her sense of freedom comes out to about $142,000.

Lee Ky moves her power wheelchair up the ramp into her Ford Windstar minivan in Reedley Sept. 27, 2023. Her van has more than 600,000 miles on it. (Serena Bettis)

“My chair is my legs because I was born with cerebral palsy all my life,” Ky said. “I do not know what it feels like to be completely free … but my chair is my leg; my van is my freedom.”

Born in Cambodia, Ky’s family came to the United States in 1979 to escape the Khmer Rouge government. They moved to Stockton in 1980, and her parents eventually opened up their first donut shop there before relocating to Reedley to open what would become the community staple Doughnuts to Go. 

After living in Stockton through high school, Ky attended San Joaquin Delta College and Reedley College, eventually earning her bachelor’s degree in behavioral science from National University and her master’s degree in rehab counseling from Fresno State. She worked as a counselor at Fresno’s Center for Independent Living for nine years before resigning to raise her son.

As described by Christa Scott, Ky’s friend and organizer of the GoFundMe, Ky was born “with a condition that rendered her unable to walk and develop normally.” It was not until Ky’s family moved to Stockton and she was able to undergo testing at a San Francisco children’s hospital that they discovered the name for that condition was cerebral palsy. 

Once diagnosed, Ky got her first power wheelchair, which gave her “the most ease and speed of movement she had ever experienced.” Ky said that while her wheelchair gives her independence, it’s her van that gives her freedom. 

“I think of ‘free,’ as in freedom, it’s just like you going to the bathroom without assistance,” Ky said. “Just like you need to go to the restroom, (you) just get up and go. So the van allows me to feel somewhat of that.”

Adaptive driving

Ky said she first learned to drive at 29 years old in 1995, and it took her only 30 days to get her license. It wasn’t difficult for her to learn because she wanted it so much, she said.

Ky currently drives a Ford Windstar minivan that is adapted to meet her specific needs. Adaptive driving equipment looks different for everyone based on their disability and range of motion. 

For example, Ky said that for people with paraplegia who can move their upper body but not their legs, they may need a push-pull system that is like bicycle equipment to accelerate and brake, but they can easily use the steering wheel and gear shift. Because Ky has limited upper body strength and can only do so much with her arms and hands, the equipment that she uses to drive is all electronic, and she needs multiple adapters to be able to use all of the controls required in driving.

Ky drives with both of her hands and uses her elbows to trigger other functions like turn signals and her car horn. Her left hand controls the accelerator and brake and her right hand is always on the steering wheel, which is adapted into a knob that she can rotate.

Finding the best fit

When looking for a new van, there are many other elements Ky has to take into consideration. In order to be able to adapt the van to her needs, the conditions of the van have to be right. 

If the steering wheel isn’t at a good angle, she won’t be able to adjust it properly to add her controls. If she has to lean over to the center console to change gears, she’ll need an additional adaptation to make it so she doesn’t have to remove her right hand from the steering wheel. 

Lee Ky explains her adaptive driving equipment in the van she is hoping to raise money to replace, Sept. 27, 2023. (Serena Bettis)

Ky said she has also been looking at the way different van models have cruise control and windshield wiper functions, which are the most important for her behind the basic driving controls. Some designs are not feasible at all, while others could work for her with the right adjustments.

“I’m trying to find a van that best fits for me so I don’t have to do a lot of adaptations,” Ky said. “Even though it looks comfortable and all, it’s what’s in front of me that’s important. The radio and things like that are not important.”

Ky determined that the best van to fit her needs is a Honda Odyssey, which she should be able to buy used from MobilityWorks, a wheelchair van dealer.

Tricky technology

Ky’s current driving equipment is 28 years old, has been used in three different vehicles and is barely functioning; however, because it is made of older electronics, she said it is obsolete, as the company that manufactured it no longer makes it and no technicians are allowed to work on it. 

Back when she first started driving, Ky said the adaptive equipment cost about $13,000. Now, that price has gone up to over $50,000.

Additionally, automotive technology has changed a lot since the 1990s. This means that Ky cannot simply purchase a new vehicle and move her equipment into it, she has to buy a new van and new equipment to go along with it.

“Technology is great, but also is difficult,” Ky said. “After a certain time, after certain limitations, because technology is also advancing … the equipment I have currently will not fit into the future of 2023 or 2024 models.”

Drive to fundraise

The Ford Windstar that Ky drives is on its second transmission, has a failing power ramp, has trouble with its brakes and has needed to be towed frequently in the last few years. Recently, the van’s brakes went out while Ky and a friend were driving along Highway 41, and since then she always tries to go somewhere with another person just in case something like that ever happens again.

“My van is currently working, but it’s somewhat dangerous,” Ky said. “I’m nervous to travel by myself so I always have a friend … (and) if I hear something off then we’ll pull over and check the oil or check this, check that.”

After putting it off for some time, Ky began to look into what it would take for her to replace her van about a year ago. Ky got multiple quotes for vehicles, adaptive equipment and what it will cost to convert a new vehicle to fit her needs. 

Unfortunately, there are not any nonprofit organizations that Scott and Ky have found that can assist with something like this, which is why they have set up a GoFundMe to ask for donations. 

A full breakdown of the costs of each piece of equipment is listed on the GoFundMe. The body of the van will cost about $41,000, the conversion $36,000 and the adaptive equipment $65,000, giving them the total fundraising goal of $142,000.

Scott said that she is hoping to find a car dealer or business that would be willing to sponsor a piece of equipment, like the locking mechanism that secures Ky into her spot in the van or the gear shifting controls.

“Every gift, no matter how big or small, we value each one,” Scott said. “I get excited every time. We’re so thankful.”

The GoFundMe is asking for anything that will help pay for the van, which Ky is hoping will then “last me for the rest of whatever I have,” she said. 

Because Ky is not currently working — she volunteers to help her family at Doughnuts to Go — she is not able to qualify for a loan, and she said even if she could get a loan, the monthly payments on that big of a price tag would be too much. 

“It’ll take a while, and that’s fine,” Ky said. “I’m going to try to keep the (the van) running until it won’t go any more. Whatever helps, helps. If we get $20,000 for the next year is fine, we’ll put it toward a down payment or something; we’ll see how it works.”

Serena Bettis
General Assignment Reporter