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Heather Kerstetter hasn’t been to the grocery store in three years, since she first moved to Philadelphia.
The 31-year-old North Philly artist has spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic condition, and she uses a wheelchair to get around.
Navigating the city with limited mobility has proved so challenging that often, she said, it isn’t worth leaving the house at all. The SEPTA stations near her aren’t fully accessible, and ride-sharing can be expensive. For groceries, she relies on delivery.
“Honestly it’s just a nightmare,” Kerstetter said. “Here in Philly, transportation is very complicated to use. It’s just not accessible for people in wheelchairs.”
Kerstetter is tapping into her community to improve the situation. She started a GoFundMe campaign last week, seeking nearly $40,000 to buy a wheelchair van she can use to get around the city.
A huge sports fan, she’s been soliciting retweets from Philly athletes by sharing illustrations she’s done of them, like Eagles running back Miles Sanders, Phillies slugger Rhys Hoskins, and Sixers guard Matisse Thybulle. Former Eagles defensive end Chris Long shared her message, helping garner some early traction.
Theoretically, Kerstetter could use SEPTA’s Customized Community Transportation program, a free option that transports seniors and those with limited mobility directly to their destinations. But in her experience, the vehicles arrive up to an hour late.
Riders on the CCT system report regular delays, and SEPTA riders have spoken out about them before.
“I’ve stopped taking it entirely, because there’s really no use for me,” Kerstetter said. “I’m always late, and I get turned away from whatever appointment I have.”
By SEPTA’s count, CCT’s on-time performance exceeds 90%, according to spokesperson Andrew Busch. The service will transition to the Key fare payment system later this year, he said, which will allow riders to use an app to reserve, cancel, and check on their trips.
With the current situation, Kerstetter has to have a detailed travel plan every time she leaves her house — and often a backup plan. Relying on rideshare is not sustainable, she said, as someone who is unemployed and living on Social Security.
Kerstetter moved to Philly from Florida three years ago to pursue a master’s degree in social work. Public transit was virtually nonexistent there, and her commute entailed riding her wheelchair in the street for five miles each day.
She thought living in a city with a legit public transit network would be a major improvement, but her travels are far from seamless.
Kerstetter lives closest to the Broad Street Line’s Cecil B. Moore station. It’s technically listed as accessible — but the buttons on the elevators are so high up that she can’t reach them while sitting in her wheelchair.
“I have to ask passersby for help,” she said. “A lot of times I’m like, stranded outside an elevator waiting for someone to pass by so I can even get down to the platform or up to the street level.”
She’d get closest to her destinations — doctor’s appointments and visits to the Social Security office — if she could stop at City Hall. But that station is not accessible. Kerstetter rides to Walnut-Locust, then loops back around, traveling in her wheelchair over Philly’s often-cracked sidewalks to get there.
Spokesperson Busch defended the transit authority, saying all elevator buttons are in compliance with ADA requirements. Also, SEPTA is adapting City Hall Station to make it accessible, with the project currently in the design phase.
In the absence of an immediate solution, Kerstetter is looking to a wheelchair van.
The vehicle would have a ramp leading up to the driver’s seat, and hand controls personalized to Kerstetter’s body. It would get her to doctor’s appointments, to the grocery store, to work, unencumbered by the public transit system. Once the pandemic is over, she could visit family in New Jersey — or finally make it to her first Sixers game.
Social media has given her dream a boost. Kerstetter’s tweet about the GoFundMe got almost 700 retweets. “Philly Sports Twitter has been oversharing it, which is so cool,” she said. “People I’ve never heard of in my entire life have been donating.”
With more than $14,000 raised as of this writing, she hopes to purchase the van this summer. “It would be a big deal,” Kerstetter said. “It would open up my world.”