By Jimmy Lovrien
Forum News Service
DULUTH, Minn. - Anyone who has owned a home can remember being handed the keys for the first time. For Mark and Heather Litynski, however, the keys to their first home were accompanied by an iPad.
With a touch of the screen the iPad can control lights, cameras, and appliances throughout the new "smart home" in Gnesen Township north of Duluth. It's a way to provide independence for Mark, who lost both legs and his left forearm in 2010 after stepping on an improvised explosive device while serving with the Marines in Afghanistan.
Starting last fall, a number of charities and area contractors chipped in and worked together to build Mark and his wife a fully accessible home. On prosthetic legs and with his wife by his side, Mark walked into his new home Tuesday.
"I keep thinking I'm going to wake up, it seems too good to be true," Heather Litynski said.
A crowd of veterans, contractors involved in the project, and the Litynskis' new neighbors assembled on the couple's new driveway where speakers involved in the project thanked Mark for his service and thanked the many people who made the home possible. A massive American flag provided the speakers a backdrop and blocked the audience's view of the home. After a chant of "Pull back that flag!" attendees finally saw the home's exterior and eventually toured the interior.
From the kitchen to the garage, the new house is customized for the Litynskis.
"We've lived in apartments that are handicap-accessible, but they conform to the standards to get the qualification," Mark said - and that doesn't necessarily mean they have everything he needs. For example, he runs into problems when faced with a railing on his left side because he is missing his left arm.
He said this new house, however, is different: "This house is designed with my needs specifically in mind."
While there are features such as handrails and grab bars, they are aesthetically pleasing, blending easily into the interior design; they don't give the home an institutional or nursing home feel. The kitchen, dining room and living space aren't separated by walls, and reside under the same high ceiling.
The home was constructed through Building for America's Bravest - a program that builds adaptable smart homes for people who have been wounded in war. Building for America's Bravest is a partner program of the Gary Sinise and Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers foundations - two groups that coordinate funding from a broad range of national and local donors.
The Litynskis both went to high school in New Hope, Minn., but memories of childhood summers spent in northern Minnesota drew them to the Duluth area.
Outside of easier movement, Mark said Tuesday that he is excited to return to tasks many take for granted: "Being able to go put my wheelchair right up to the stove so I can reach the back burners; the cabinets come down so I don't have to climb on the counters."
The home boasts wide hallways and doorways for easy maneuverability. It is hardly noticeable to visitors, but Mark finds the extra space incredibly useful.
"The little things really make a huge difference," he said.
The couple is expecting their first child in November. Although the house doesn't have a designated nursery yet, it certainly has more than enough room for the Litynski family to grow.
"We're home," Heather said as the couple received their keys and iPad.