Rick Emlee could hardly believe what he was seeing.
About a half-dozen volunteers with Hearts &Hammers buzzed around the backyard of his Freeland home on Saturday morning clearing out blackberry bushes and repairing a troublesome staircase during the non-profit organization’s 24th annual workday. Emlee, 68, can’t feel his feet due to neuropathy and uses two crutches to move about. He fell on his rotting and muddy stairs three times this past winter while trying to reach his driveway.
The volunteers not only fixed his staircase and cleared out the brambles, but also cleaned up garbage and repaired his malfunctioning sink. Emlee pondered his “blessing” and wondered how such a widespread effort by community members was possible.
“It makes me feel extremely guilty that I can’t do it, but I am thrilled,” Emlee said.
The answer is simple in the eyes of volunteer Clayton Granby.
“It’s neighbors helping neighbors,” Granby said, team captain of the work party at Emlee’s home and a member of Hearts &Hammer’s board of directors. “It’s all about having people ask for help. Because the people that give help a lot of times are more grateful than those who get it. As long as we keep the scope within a manageable size, we get it done in a day and everyone walks away with a great sense of accomplishment.”
There was plenty of accomplishment to go around just based on the day’s scope of work. Over 330 volunteers visited 36 homes across South Whidbey. They cleaned roofs and gutters, created ramps, staircases and handrails, gardened, repaired fences and more.
Work teams gathered at 7:45 a.m. at South Whidbey High School, getting a quick bite to eat and going over plans for the day. It was followed by a group photo. The workday concluded with a celebration dinner later that night for volunteers, homeowners and family members of both groups at the high school. Baz Stevens, president of Hearts &Hammer’s board said homeowners had glowing testimonies about the type of impact volunteers made in their everyday lives.
“Everyone had a super time,” Stevens said. “The community was just beaming after this was over.”
Langley resident Lenna Rose was among the more experienced volunteers at Emlee’s home. She’s volunteered with Hearts &Hammers for about 10 years. Rose helped clear out blackberry bushes and haul garbage.
“It’s really about community,” Rose said. “It’s helping someone who is less fortunate.”
Across the street, another work party was building a 70-foot fence and woodshed for a homeowner “that needs privacy,” Rusty Palmer said, a volunteer who is also chief of South Whidbey Fire/EMS. The four-person crew included Palmer, Suzi Prentiss, Doug Leland and Adam Breedlove.
Leland, a Gig Harbor resident who owns a summer home at Sunlight Beach in Bayview, was in awe of the community’s efforts.
“It’s absolutely spectacular,” Leland said. “I wish more communities did stuff like this.”
Leland also said he had no experience with building a fence. But, the work was doable thanks to the guidance of Breedlove, owner and operator of Breedlove Construction and team captain of the work party. Breedlove was among those recruited by Hearts &Hammers for his carpentry skills. The work party also received help from Clinton-based McBride Fence, which set concrete posts around the home, and Hanson’s Construction, which supplied building materials.
“It is help from other outlets like that that really make the day possible,” Breedlove said.
While the work itself was what he does on a daily basis during the week, Breedlove said Saturday was far more fulfilling.
“It’s just a lot more rewarding because it’s volunteering and all the people are having a good time,” Breedlove said. “Owners are always super grateful to get a project because they usually can’t afford to hire someone to do it. They get the material for free, they get the labor for free for the cost of nothing.”
Breedlove estimated that the materials alone cost $1,500 and “at least that much in labor.”
“Because everyone donates a little bit, it doesn’t cost anyone too much and they wind up getting their project done,” Breedlove said.
Stevens also wished to recognize one volunteer who went above and beyond all the others: Katrina Leski. Leski, who is on the kitchen staff at the high school, helped organize the school’s cafeteria with seating and other assorted items for the large gathering Saturday morning. She then volunteered all day and cleaned up after the dinner. Stevens said she worked from 5:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
“Nobody else did that,” Stevens said.