TORRINGTON – “A hard-working American citizen.”
That’s about the highest praise you can get from Jim Merrick. He’s a welder, a Vietnam veteran, a former crane operator, and he’s had his hand in a number of industries – but he’s done it all himself, for himself. He’s got the hands and mentality of a man who’s worked for most of his 72 years, and the “Make America Great Again” hat on his head, in his opinion, let’s everyone know where he stands.
That praise doesn’t come easily. It has to be earned, over time, day in and day out.
His 25-year-old neighbor, Seth Kostur, earned that praise.
“I admire him,” Merrick said. “He lives on his own. He’s a good neighbor.”
Kostur drives for his own taxi and courier service, Sagecoach Express. He’s held a few jobs in his life, and he takes pride in saying that. He has a work ethic that could only come from spending his formative years on a farm, and a mentality that doesn’t allow him to make excuses.
“I grew up on a farm outside of town and I learned from a young age that, and I had values instilled in me, that you’ve got to pull your weight,” he said. “If you can work, you should work. There have been challenges associated with that.”
Kostur downplays those challenges.
He was born with cerebral palsy. He’s wheelchair bound, and his left side is heavily affected. He struggles using his hands, as the disease affects his fine motor skills.
But there’s one thing cerebral palsy can’t touch – an insuppressible independent spirit, and an unbeatable desire to be independent.
Making it work
According to the Center for Disease Control, cerebral palsy is a group of disorders the affects a person’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture. It’s cause by abnormal brain development or damage to the undeveloped brain, and it limits a person’s ability to control their muscles.
Kostur said he and his family aren’t sure how he contracted CP.
“I was born with cerebral palsy,” Kostur said. “We don’t know when it happened. We don’t know if it happened at birth, we don’t know if it happened after birth. I was born two months premature. The pregnancy was fine. As far as I know, my mom just went into labor and they knew something wasn’t quite right.
“At that time we were living in Colorado, so I was born in the Colorado State University Hospital. I spent two months in the neo-natal intensive care unit. Thankfully, I made it.”
From the time he came home from the NICU, Kostur has worked to make sure he’s not identified as just a person with CP.
“It has been trying for my parents more than me,” he said. “It presents challenges in and of itself, but I grew up with the mentality that if you can make it work, make it work. I’ve been able to work around it, and I’ve been able to take care myself.”
That’s what he’s strived for his whole life. Cerebral palsy has made it tougher, but Kostur found ways to overcome.
“My left side is more affected than my right,” he said. “My hand writing is affected. My hand-motor skills are affected, and my fine motor skills are affected. But there again, I have found ways to get around that. In high school, I found a computer program that that you could speak into, and it would type for you. I used that a lot, and I use that a lot now writing up contracts and things like that. It’s a tool, and I was fortunate enough to learn how to take care of myself. I live on my own now. I live like a normal guy.
“I am able to take care myself.”
He’s been able to hold down a job since before he graduated from Southeast High School. He got his start working for an oil and gas company. He’s always done his best no matter the job, and in August of 2017, he stepped out to start working for himself.
A community need
In Torrington, the only establishments more popular than churches are bars.
There are more bars than restaurants, grocery stores and gas stations. They’re used – just cruise by any parking lot on a Friday night. Those are dollars spent in our community, but there is one issue with the bar business – how will the patrons get home?
That’s where Kostur saw his opening.
“I was thinking, ‘what does this community need?’ he said. “We thought of that. I have been doing that for a while. My first official day was August 15 of 2017.”
He decided to go into business for himself after he struggled to find a job, despite his willingness to work.
“I don’t want to use it as an excuse, but one of the things that ultimately forced me to go out on my own and do this taxi service was that I was being turned down by employers,” he said. “I know for a fact that 80 percent of them see the disability and they don’t see past that. It’s a sad thing, but it’s a thing that I have to deal with. I’m sure a lot of people had to deal with things like that, too.”
Unfortunately, like Kostur, a lot of disabled people have trouble finding work.
According to a study by Cornell University, most disabled people Kostur’s age do not work. There are 12.5 million disabled people between the ages of 21 and 64, the study said, but only 1.4 million are actively looking for work. The United States Department of Labor Statistics found that 14.1 percent of disabled Americans are unemployed – that’s seven percent higher than the national unemployment rate at the time of the study.
The statistics are not in his favor, but Kostur wasn’t willing to accept that he can’t be a productive citizen just because he has a disability.
“I had a lot of people tell me that I wouldn’t be happy working a minimum wage job, or working overnights, because of the wage,” he said. “But let me make that choice. It’s not for you to decide.”
So he went into business as Sagecoach Express, Torrington’s only private taxi and courier service.
His van – a white Chrysler – has been modified to accomodate Kostur’s motorized wheelchair. He’s comfortable in it. It has a wheel chair lift, so he can enter and drive without assistance. His chair locks into a docking station on the floor where the driver’s seat would normally be.
Now, he looks right at home in the cockpit of the van, but just getting to the point where he could drive at all was a challenge in itself.
“It was a challenge knowing, and getting to know, what I can do and not do,” he said. “We originally thought that I was going to need hand controls, but we figured out through trial and error and experimenting that I could drive with my feet.
“It was a long process. I didn’t really start driving until I was 18 years old. I had to figure out what I needed to drive first, then went on the vehicle. That took time, but once we got there I went and took my driving test and I passed.”
Now, he’s there for anyone that requires his service. The Sagecoach Express costs $20 for a round trip in the city of Torrington, half that for one way. He factors in mileage outside of Torrington, but no matter what he charges for his time and services, it’s much more affordable than a DUI conviction.
In Wyoming, an offender’s first DUI nets them at least a night in jail and a fine of up to $750. The stakes get higher with each conviction, and the fourth is a felony that
carries prison time.
A DUI conviction, believe it or not, is one of the best things that can come from drunk driving - more than 50 people die every year as a result of alcohol-involved crashes, according to the Wyoming Governor’s Council on Impaired Driving. Nationally, 27 people die every day as the result of drunk driving.
“You’d be surprised how many people still choose to chance it,” Kostur said. “I can’t force them to take a ride.”
‘Just the way it is’
In his year and a half of driving professionally, Kostur has had some interesting clients.
Once, a woman called him and he picked her up in Torrington at 4 a.m. The woman sent him on a wild goose chase for the next eight hours, racking up 93 miles on the Chrysler’s odometer and a $300 bill.
He’s had people argue over the price. He’s had drunks fall asleep in his van. It’s all a part of the taxi business, Kostur said.
“A few of them decided to get mean,” he said. “This is the way it is, That’s just business.
If somebody calls, I go. Ultimately, if things go wrong, it’s my fault and nobody else’s. I’m the one who has to take those calls. If I come across something that I haven’t seen before, I can usually figure it out.
“I wish I would’ve known this then, but now I know if I pull up in front of the sheriff’s office and honk a few times, they will come out and take care of them.”
But for the most part, Kostur’s regular customers are his favorite part of the job. He’s even got a few regulars.
“One of my best customers is a 92-year-old gentleman that has macular degeneration,” Kostur said. “I take him from his home east of Lingle, and I take him to Scottsbluff every time he has an appointment. It just varies depending on needs. I’m always looking for new people to help and ways to expand and grow.”
And that’s the real reason behind it all for Kostur. Sagecoach Express is a business, and he’s got to put food on the table, but the main reason he stays just one call away from his customers is because he is here to help.
“It is just something that I really enjoy,” he said. “It gives me a chance to help people out that really need it.”
Kostur’s had a valid excuse, for his entire life, to be selfish – but he’s not. He chooses to get up every morning and do his part to contribute, whether it’s making sure people get home safe after a night on the town, or helping an elderly man make it to his medical appointments.
It’s selflessness, a genuine, inspirational display if there ever was one, by a man with every excuse to be bitter and selfish.
“A lot of people that haven’t had my experiences come are very different than I am,” he said. ”A lot of people have to deal with things that aren’t exactly fair - but that’s just the way it is.”