June 25, 2008 · Updated 8:54 PM
Thanks to a little kindness from neighbors, Marlys Charron and her family can now walk safely on the deck of her Brighton Beach home. After owning the home since the 1960s, the deck and other areas of the home that was originally built in 1902 and renovated in the 1970s had received wear and tear. Thanks to the kindness of neighbors, Charrons home received needed repairs to ensure safety and accessibility for her wheelchair-bound husband. Hearts and Hammers came to the rescue. And hundreds of other homeowners share Charrons gratitude of thanks.
May will mark the twelfth year that Hearts and Hammers has lifted homeowners hearts on South Whidbey. Last year a crew of around 400 volunteers labored at 35 different work sites, and on May 1 the twelfth work blitz one day of constant hammering, sawing, chopping, sanding, binding, weeding, cleaning and overhauling all for neighbors, will return.
Hearts and Hammers began in 1994 as a pilot project under the sponsorship of the Langley United Methodist Church. Founder Lynn Willeford was on the churchs missions and social concerns committee when she came up with an idea to help widows and single moms who have trouble with the upkeep of their homes.
She and her husband, Blake, along with a couple of close friends set out to help repair homes with the same neighborly kindness that had been given to them when the couple moved to Whidbey in the mid-1970s.
It was a logical extension of the work parties we had all put on while building our own homes, Willeford said.
The handful of volunteers set a first year goal of raising $5,000 to work on five houses, which ended up raising close to $10,000, and work on 10 homes with close to 100 volunteers. The effort has only continued to grow each year.
The Whidbey Hearts and Hammers model has even been adopted by other groups around the country that now hold their own work days.
In the Hearts and Hammers nonbuilding season, a board of directors meets to conduct fundraising, coordinate the volunteer drive and selects homes for assistance.
An offshoot group, HEART, provides emergency response to needs that cant wait until the workday in May. Hearts and Hammers volunteers Jim Scullin, Steve Scoles, and others heed the call year round for situations like roof leaks, hot water tank and faucet leaks and other repairs that prove to be an immediate health or safety risk.
I always thought it would work, and now I know it does, Willeford said.
Now an independent nonprofit program, Hearts and Hammers maintains ties to the Langley Methodist Church that, along with the greater community, remains a constant contributor of volunteers and support.
Homeowners who are physically or financially unable to complete necessary repairs themselves are eligible to receive assistance. There is no cost to the home owners for the repairs. Costs are covered by grants and donations of money and materials from foundations, local businesses, churches and individuals.
The only restriction is that it must be possible for the repairs or renovations to be completed within the scope of one day.
Willeford helped with the intake process during the organizations infancy and can still remember the phone calls.
People couldnt imagine it was possible and tended to burst into tears, she said. There was a disbelief that there were no hoops they had to jump through and that this wasnt charity simply what goes around comes around.
One year a woman simply asked for a little red wagon. Why? Her roof was leaking and all she wanted was help carrying the heavy buckets of rain water she collected. To her surprise, a crew came to help reroof her house.
While skilled persons such as carpenters, electricians and plumbers are essential to the work sites, everyone is needed to keep things going. Each year around 400 volunteers are needed. There is always a crew of woodchucks that cuts and delivers donated firewood. Theres recycling crews, materials delivery crews and even kitchen helping crews.
The day begins with the volunteers gathering at South Whidbey High school for coffee and breakfast treats before they receive work assignments and head off to job sites. In one single day, lives and homes are changed.
Paul and Dorothy Barth have lived in the Wheel Estates off Bayview Road for six years. After frequent use, and most likely inherent wear, the Barths one day found their porch in need of repair.
Several boards had collapsed and the porch was no longer safe, Dorothy Barth said. One day my sister stepped out there and her foot literally fell in a big hole.
The project was too big for she and her husband to complete, and the couple wouldnt have been able to afford to fix the problem no matter how big, or small.
Having heard about Hearts and Hammers, Barth contacted the organization and soon she was asking her husband what a pile of wood and other materials was doing near their home. The Hearts and Hammers materials crew had delivered.
A crew of three arrived on the work day and finished by noon.
The idea of people willing to give their expertise on a volunteer basis was amazing, Barth said.
Barth spent her day cooking for the nights celebratory dinner for the work crew.
I paid my due by doing what I could and in this case it was cook, she said.
Its common for the homeowners to welcome the crews into their homes and work right along side them, said Hearts and Hammers board president Randy Hudson.
And often, Willeford said, homeowners who received assistance often turn into workday volunteers, team captains and board members.
Freeland resident Nancy Dahlen, a great-grandmother who lives in Freeland, would have been in a pretty precarious situation if it wasnt for the help of Hearts and Hammers.
I probably would have had to climb on the roof myself, Dahlen said.
Her mobile home residence of five years had a leaky roof, broken pipes and other needed repairs that Dahlen had attempted to handle herself, but that she just could get control over.
I thought it was great before and think theyre really great now, Dahlen said. They came in and not only completed the tasks that were defined but also went about and beyond.
Workday volunteer Peter Casale of Freeland has lived in the San Juans and Whidbey Island combined since 1990, and last May decided to volunteer for the Hearts and Hammers workday.
Ive seen that island life and its communities are fragile and so many people struggle economically to stay here, he said. I wanted to work to protect that.
At the end of the day, floors that once had holes are once again whole. Roofs that leaked are once again dry. Doors that were stuck shut can now open.
You have no idea how it lightens the heart until you see it happen, Willeford said.
And after a tiring day out on the worksites, the muscles and the soul get a recharge at the spaghetti feed.
Its a golden day and you hear the stories of that day, Casale said. Its one of the best days of the year almost like Christmas and seeing the happiness of everyone opening their presents.