Lynn Willeford’s plan sounded like a good idea in theory 25 years ago.
Get some folks with some handy fix-it skills together. Find some folks needing critical home repairs. Match them up and devote one long day to hard work and kindness.
Richard Merrill, a long-time carpenter and the one Willeford tasked as House General, had his doubts. But he kept them to himself.
“Up until the work day, I didn’t know if it was going to work,” he recalled. “It was strictly a volunteer work crew. I didn’t know what they could do. I didn’t even know if they’d show up.
“But everything just happened. At dinner that night, I said, ‘It had to be magic.’ Ever since, the same magic of volunteer labor, willingness and can-do attitude comes through every year.”
Called Hearts & Hammers, Willeford and Merrill, backed with support from Langley United Methodist Church, launched what would become one of the most successful volunteer programs on Whidbey Island. A chapter started for Central Whidbey homeowners began 10 years ago and North Whidbey may have its own chapter next year.
Supplies are donated and bought at discount from local construction supply stores with money from fundraising events.Volunteers usually bring their own tools and some even lend their own trucks to make dump runs. Restaurants, other food services and cooks also pitch in to serve breakfast and dinner on Work Day.
In 1994, six houses were on the repair list with four more added at the last minute. About 20 people volunteered.
Steadily the number of people helped and the number of helpers grew every year on the first Saturday of May, Hearts & Hammers’ official Work Day.
This past Saturday, more than 400 volunteers were dispatched in teams to 34 houses around South Whidbey. Jobs ranged in scope from yard work, bathroom improvements, gutter and roof cleaning, deck rails, plumbing and electrical repairs, debris hauling and building wheelchair ramps.
“We’ve helped well over 700 homeowners over the 25 years, ” said Baz Stevens, president of the board overseeing South Whidbey Hearts & Hammers.
Saturday evening, the organization marked its quarter-century anniversary with an extra-special post-work gathering featuring a Cinco de Mayo dinner, live music, a tribute to Willeford and surprise raffle gifts.
Marcia Wiley was recognized for her 25 years of volunteering at the celebration held at South Whidbey High School. This year, she led a team at a Langley house with deck repair, yard clean-up and hot water heater work.
Homeowners are also invited to the dinners to continue forming the “neighbors helping neighbors” bond.
Most are elderly or disabled and unable to afford the cost of home repairs; some are in danger of losing their homes if they can’t maintain them.
But sometimes, it’s adult children who need support.
At a mobile home near Freeland on Saturday afternoon, a team of 10 volunteers assembled two wooden ramps for the exterior and interior. They were needed to assist a physically and developmentally disabled woman whose mother and caregiver had struggled to help her get in and out of the house.
The mother purchased the property in a foreclosure sale about 18 months ago. Junk riddled the yard, including a small RV camper, three refrigerators and old tires.
The volunteers cleaned it up and built ramps.
Clayton Ganby, project House Captain, estimated the materials cost about $2,200 and a contractor might charge $6,000 in labor.
Sometimes, it’s what’s taken away from a house that changes lives.
“This is a success story,” said Ashley McConnaughey, standing alongside a construction-size dumpster spilling out with moldy carpet and other garbage. Lined up on the street were 52 old tires, mounds of black garbage bags and piles of debris separated into wood, metal and other material.
“I’ve been doing this with Hearts & Hammers for 15 years. When they have a gnarly house, they call me,” McConnaughey said. “I’m used to these jobs. It takes a long time for someone to finally get help. I’m proud of her.”
Some materials were being recycled. For the tons of trash taken to dumps on that one day, Island County waived the fee.
Wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow, 40 years worth of collected and forgotten items were removed by a stream of workers wearing gloves and white face masks.
Piles on the lower deck had to be removed first to get into the first floor and its collected boxes, some ruined by water damage. Outside, towering pink and white rhododendrons, hedges and shrubs surrounded the attractive brick house.
But the blossoming exterior belied the oppressed interior.
People hauled trash while carpenters fixed the porch and floors. A couple of young volunteers from Seattle with friends on Whidbey helped out; a mom, dad and 16-year-old son worked side by side, a nearby neighbor pitched in as did a local educator.
“I think it’s really important for teachers to set an example to show students we can make a difference doing things in our own community,” said Michele Sakaguchi, an 8th-grade math teacher at South Whidbey Middle School. “But when I first saw the house, I thought ‘How will we ever make a dent?’ And now we’re almost done.”
Over the years, hoarding attracted rodents to the first floor while leaking sinks rotted floors upstairs in the bathroom and kitchen.
Things got out of hand, the homeowner said, and the worse it got, the more she hid.
“I wanted to call a plumber,” she said. “But I was embarrassed by all this.”