“Not yet.”That’s all the small, tomato-shaped sign at the driveway entrance said, but it was enough to let customers know tomatoes inside the Harman family’s greenhouse weren’t quite ready.But by Feb. 13, the vines would be loaded and bearing buckets of fruit right on up until July 4. For 18-year-old Megan Harman, it will mark the first Independence Day that she will have the freedom she has wanted for so long.Thanks not only to customers who bought tomatoes from their Lee County greenhouse but also the kindness of countless strangers who donated to Megan’s drive for freedom, Chris and Rita Harman’s daughter now has her own set of wheels.The used 2004 Dodge Caravan she now drives isn’t the vehicle she had in mind when Neighbors first told her story in its July 2007 issue. But it’s more than an acceptable compromise for a young girl almost powerless to move since birth due to arthrogrpyposis, a congenital disorder of the connective tissue that has bent and bound her tiny frame, hampered her growth and diminished her lung capacity.”I really just wanted to get out of the house — the type of car really was not that big of a deal,” said Megan, whose family had launched the greenhouse business with hopes of raising $113,000 for a new Honda Element outfitted with all the necessary features that would enable her to drive. “She loves that vehicle,” said her mother. “She’s happy just to have something.”Her dad says that even if the van had been “pink polka-dot,” Megan couldn’t have been more excited about the silver vehicle they picked up from a handicapped van dealership near Atlanta last October.Sure, it had 64,000 miles on it, but it was in such good condition — and equipped with many handicapped features Megan needed — that the State of Alabama’s Department of Rehabilitation Services (ADOR) recommended it anyway. ADOR also added between $30,000-$40,000 in high-tech gadgets she’d need.Press the key fob and the van automatically lowers to within inches of the ground, the door opens and a wheelchair ramp comes out. Megan can steer her wheelchair into the driver’s position, automatically locking her chair into place. She uses a joystick to steer with her left hand, while her right uses a keypad to control lights, wipers, signals, heat, air, radio, mirrors and more. There’s also a voice recognition system that, when it works correctly, can control many of those same features.The van cost the Harmans only $11,000, about half of which was paid through donations that came pouring in from all over the state almost immediately after the article in Neighbors magazine.”The mailbox was very busy,” said Rita. “We didn’t get a lot of phone calls, but the mailbox stayed full. Lots of cards with checks that said, ‘We can’t get there for the tomatoes, but we hope you get your van soon.’ The outpouring was incredible.”Chris remembers one couple that drove over from Valley to make a $200 donation because “the story and Megan’s situation struck their hearts.” The Boligee Presbyterian Church, on the opposite side of the state in Greene County, sent the largest single donation — $500.The response didn’t surprise Megan because, she said, “I know people have big hearts and this time was no different.”More help came about a year later when a student in Georgia Tech’s Global Executive MBA program saw the story, and convinced his classmates to take on Megan’s cause as a class project. Creating the “Donate-o-Tomato” campaign, the students developed business and marketing plans for the Harmans’ greenhouse business, revamped their Web site, researched packaging options and provided new accounting software which Megan now uses to track tomato sales.”Their class has since graduated,” said Rita, “but the next class said they were going to continue it. … But we’ve got the van already; so what’s our goal?”Of course, expenses haven’t stopped. Although Rita still works at East Alabama Medical Center and Chris is a health inspector for Lee County, the family (which also includes 5-year-old twins Kelly and Kyle, 8-year-old Kim and 16-year-old Ben) still must come up with about $20,000 to heat the greenhouse. And then there’s the matter of Megan’s college. She plans to attend Southern Union State Community College in Opelika this fall before transferring to Auburn University.In the meantime, Megan — who was licensed by the state almost 20 months before finally getting the van — is getting invaluable experience by driving to the church just up the road from her home and to class at Beauregard High School.”It’s almost like having a 15-year-old again,” said Rita. “She needs that ‘road time’ to learn how to judge when a light’s turning yellow, how much time she has to stop… we haven’t cut her loose yet.””Megan’s been good,” says Chris. “She realizes she needs more training.””Our goal for her is to be able to get to college and home and be able to drive by herself,” Rita added. “She has to get acclimated to the whole thing. … but there are lots of redlights, lots of traffic …the same things any new driver has to get used to. But she’ll definitely make this July 4 her Independence Day. Her independence is here early.”Harman Family Farm is at 3068 Lee Road 166, Opelika, AL 36804. For more information about Harman Family Farm tomatoes, call (334) 703-0328 or email email@example.com.
MEGAN’S RIDE: Teen Finds Freedom, Thanks To Tomatoes & Friends