Wheels for Josh

A Kalispell family’s grassroots fundraiser aims to assist a wheelchair-bound young man whose spirit has touched nearly everyone he meets

By Andy Viano
Josh Burt, pictured on Dec. 13, 2018. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Josh Burt thought he was going to Gene Langstaff’s 60th birthday party.

It was Sept. 15 and Burt, 20, stopped to pick up a card and gift for his family friend and deliver it to Whitefish Assembly Church, the same place where he and Langstaff had met three years prior. Burt arrived and headed toward the room where the party’s attendees were gathering, awaiting the guest of honor.

“I get there and I’m looking through these super small windows in the doors and everybody’s around tables and there are six, seven, eight different cakes in there,” Burt remembered. “And everybody’s got their phones out and I’m just thinking in my head, ‘I’m not Gene!’”

When Burt rolled through the doors in his wheelchair, the 150 or so people in attendance shouted “Surprise!” and cheered. The party, as it turned out, was for him, and Gene and his wife, Lyn, had orchestrated the entire ruse, all the way to fibbing about Gene’s age (he’s only 55).

As the shock wore off, Gene brought Burt onto a small stage and revealed what was really happening. His family, with a major assist from the greater community, had in just two months raised tens of thousands of dollars and was on track to, they hoped, outfitting Burt with the truck of his dreams which, in turn, would give him the freedom and independence to live a life without boundaries.

“It was (overwhelming),” Burt said. “There is video on Facebook of me crying; it was amazing.”

Burt, whose spina bifida forces him to use a wheelchair, met the Langstaffs through their church and it did not take long for Lyn Langstaff to see something special in the then-teenager, someone she met only three years ago.

“I’ve been watching him and noticing his integrity and his character,” Lyn said. “The kid is outstanding. I’m really impressed with him, and like my husband put in our GoFundMe, if I wouldn’t have been as impressed with this kid I wouldn’t be doing this for him.”

Burt is the youngest of four children and when he has needed transportation beyond where his wheelchair can take him, an older-model red mini-van has been doing the job. The van is equipped with a wheelchair ramp, albeit one that the family secures with an old dog leash, and a couple years ago Burt’s dad, Sam, installed a set of hand controls to help his son earn his driver’s license, something he did last year.

But the mini-van isn’t just Josh’s — he shares it with his mom, Donna — and as Josh has gotten older, picked up a job as a courtesy clerk at Safeway in Whitefish, and devoted himself more seriously to his budding basketball career, the inconvenience of sharing a ride could have worn on Burt, his friends and his family.

It didn’t, Lyn says, because of Burt’s relentless positivity, something he shares with the hundreds of customers he interacts with every week at his job. It is also precisely the attitude that motivated the Langstaffs to turn around and help someone who needed it, but wasn’t asking for it.

“I know he must have his down days but I’ve never seen it,” Lyn said. “He’s the most upbeat, positive kid I’ve ever met, and every single person that I’ve run into (says the same).”

The fundraising effort began in July with the Langstaffs strategizing what they would like to see delivered: A half-ton Chevy pickup with remote start, heated mirrors, Bluetooth capabilities, permanent wheelchair modifications and the first year of insurance covered. All told, the Langstaffs estimate that will cost about $60,000, and as of Dec. 13 more than $38,000 had already been raised through both online and local campaigns.

“You’ve given so much to us in the community,” Lyn said of Burt. “Now it’s time that we want to give back to you.”

“Knowing (the Langstaffs) character, I wasn’t surprised,” Donna Burt said. “We were overcome with, oh my gosh, it just humbled us that somebody wanted to help him that much.”

Donna said the family was working toward one day finding Josh a vehicle of his own, but that this experience has certainly accelerated that timeline and also showed them just how much people in the Flathead Valley and beyond — including some they have never met — can express kindness and generosity.

“It’s just an amazing experience, I’ve never actually had anything like this,” Josh said. “My family will always say I love giving.”

“The community’s been awesome; the church, everybody’s just jumped right in,” Donna added before addressing her son. “You’ve learned that your community really likes you and they’re always cheering you on, they always do.”

Donations are being accepted online at www.gofundme.com/josh-b-mobility/ and more information is available on the Josh Burt Mobility Fund Facebook page. Local residents can also donate by visiting any Whitefish Credit Union location and asking to contribute to the Josh Burt Mobility Fund.

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