Stephen Leale has been confined to a wheelchair since his legs were paralyzed in a mountain climbing accident 16 years ago. Since then, he has had to rely on the largess of his friends and his own ingenuity to accomplish such mundane chores as grocery shopping or buying Christmas cards.
"You don't want to impose on your friends," says Leale, 35, of North Hollywood. "You really have to give people the space to say no. It may sound sad but I'd rather have someone I don't know do chores for me. I'd absolutely rather pay someone."
For years, Leale says, he searched for a service that would free him from having to ask those closest to him for help. Then, one day, he noticed an ad on cable television for the Hope Well Homebound Service. He called immediately.
"I'd been looking for a service like this one for a long time," Leale says. "I had asked around. There are home care services through the government. But you have to have approval and you have to be within a certain income bracket. No one has a 24-hour service like this one."
The service is the brainchild of Janet Gratz, a former film editor, who says she knows from experience what it is like to be confined to one's home. During the 1980s, Gratz says, she had six surgeries on her feet, and in recent years she has suffered from chronic fatigue.
"During the time I was homebound, my family was close by, but it occurred to me that there should be a service to call to get my groceries for me," Gratz says. "When everyone went back to work for the fall (1994) TV shoots, I started my business instead."
The name Hope Well, Gratz says, reflects her "hope that people will be well," her hope that her own health will hold, and the irony that she spent her summers as a youngster in Hopewell Junction, N.Y.
Although nursing and home companion services are widely available, random phone calls to health care facilities in the San Fernando Valley and a walk through the Yellow Pages turned up nothing quite like Hope Well.
"The truth is, a lot of people at home don't need nurses," says Diane Glatt, founder of the Tender Care Agency of Granada Hills, which places home companions with the sick and elderly.
"I haven't heard of anything like (Gratz's service), but we place people all the time to run errands, go to the dry cleaners, the pharmacy," Glatt adds. "Our care givers do anything the person wants them to do."
Unlike Hope Well, Tender Care has a four-hour minimum. Hope Well charges $10 an hour for all services while Tender Care services start at $10 per hour.
For most people using such services, the price is worth paying. "I don't have to rely on anybody else now, which makes it nice," says Dottie Peterson of Van Nuys, an elderly amputee and Hope Well client.
"Janet drove me to a Hughes market," Peterson adds. "It was the first time I was in a grocery store in a year! It was wonderful. I was in my little go-cart and Janet picked things off the shelf for me."
Some go so far as to say that Hope Well is a godsend. "I have parents, a sister, close friends to help me," says Wendy Corell of Northridge, who was found 10 years ago to have multiple sclerosis. "When I spend time with them, I'd rather it be quality time rather than time running errands.
"This has given me independence," says Corell, who uses a wheelchair.
Most important, says Leale, it has simplified his life. "Every year, I call local stores in my area and ask if the manager would be willing to drop by my home with some Christmas cards. I offer to pay for the gas.
"It used to take two or three calls to get someone willing to bring the cards by," Leale says. "Last year, it took me 10 calls. And it ended up costing me a fortune. That's why I'm grateful for Janet."
Most Hope Well clients emphasize that they are not looking to establish a personal friendship with Gratz, who for the moment runs the business on her own, although she has a staff lined up to help her once it expands. It now has about a dozen clients.
"Our relationship has been pretty professional," Corell says. "I've been able to share a lot of my frustrations and that's the reason her service has been so valuable to me. She understands my needs."
As a result of that professionalism, Hope Well clients are loyal. "I think a lot of people in my situation don't realize that Janet's service is available," Corell adds. "It has really helped me tremendously."
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WHERE TO GO
What: Hope Well Homebound Service.
Price: $10 an hour.
Call: (818) 989-HOPE.
What: Tender Care Agency.
Price: From $10 an hour, with a four-hour minimum.
Call: (818) 366-6718 or (310) 274-8322.