Hearts & Hammers: 20 years of neighbors helping neighbors on Whidbey

It began with one woman’s vision to bring the people of South Whidbey together, build community and provide an opportunity for all ages to volunteer.

It began with one woman’s vision to bring the people of South Whidbey together, build community and provide an opportunity for all ages to volunteer.

That vision evolved into a monumental assembly of volunteers one day a year helping homeowners.

The Hearts and Hammers organization is seeking homes to repair for the annual workday, May 4, 2013, which marks the 20th year for the group. This epochal anniversary is an appropriate time to acknowledge the accomplishments and reflect on how it all began.

Over the last two decades, volunteer teams have worked to repair more than 500 homes, said Jim Scullin, president of Hearts and Hammers, with thousands of people actively participating, both by volunteering and through financial support.

“The principle goals have been to provide people in our community with the opportunity to help their neighbors maintain a safe and healthy environment in their homes and live with dignity,” Scullin said.

Lynn Willeford, the force behind establishing Hearts and Hammers, saw that many people in the community needed assistance to continue living in their homes.

“I knew enough people here, builders and back-to-the-land people, who would be willing to help,” Willeford said.

She borrowed some of the ideas from Habitat for Humanity and Christmas in April, a group on the East Coast that repaired homes.

Knowing she needed a lot of supporters, Willeford went to her church, Langley United Methodist, and presented the plan. She found an enthusiastic congregation that provided “incredible help” to reinforce the new group.

It was also a time of contention, according to Willeford, with people divided over the direction of development in Island County. Frequent letters to the editor appeared in the South Whidbey Record, illustrating the polarized positions.

Willeford wanted to create a project that brought people together, provided help and gave young people an opportunity to learn the value of volunteering.

Year 1: Eight homes

The first year eight homes received repairs. By the second year, Willeford realized her goal to build community could work.

“We had three to five people who had been fighting over the building issue on the same roof working together,” Willeford said.

Willeford continues to volunteer on every work day along with her husband, Blake, who serves as a house captain.

Richard Merrill was one of the first builders Willeford recruited the inaugural year.

“This was a good opportunity to invest with my skills,” Merrill said. “Lynn was very good at organizing and getting people to do their jobs,” he said. “But it was kind of like a theater production; with a lot of work to get the show ready, hoping people would come.”

The planning started eight months before the workday, where the board still meets today, at the Methodist church.

“It was like the blind leading the blind,” Merrill said, describing that first formative year.

“After all that preliminary planning, I was not sure it would work.”

A flock of volunteers

On the first workday, 100 people walked in the door to volunteer, much to the relief of Merrill.

“It was like jumping out of the plane and actually having a parachute.”

It took about five years of trial and error to find the perfect formula, said Merrill, who stayed on the board for the next 16 years and still volunteers yearly.

Known for his years as chef, cook and organizer of the volunteer dinner, he described every workday as “kind of magical.”

The volunteers often described the reward as greater than the work, according to Merrill.

The guiding principles that Willeford established are still present today, said Hearts and Hammers board member Bob Dalton. Neighbors helping neighbors stay in their homes, working with compassion and a nonjudgmental attitude.

“Hearts and Hammers is an organization that belongs to the volunteers,” Dalton said.

“Everyone gives whatever skills they have with an enthusiastic attitude. It’s fun to be around others who have that passion.”

It has kept him volunteering for 16 years. The vision of building community continues today, Dalton said.

He credits the generosity of volunteers and financial supporters with the growth of the organization.

52 homes in 2012

Last year Hearts and Hammers worked on 52 homes with 450 volunteers. All the labor and materials for repairs were provided at no cost to the homeowners.

Hearts and Hammers has expanded beyond the South Whidbey Community, due in part to the “cookbook” Willeford created with guidelines to create a Hearts and Hammers group. Articles appeared in Fine Home Building Magazine and the New Age Journal offering the “recipe” to others. Inquiries came from all over the country.

Today there are known Hearts and Hammers groups in Kansas, Missouri, Minnesota, Texas and Tennessee. Central Whidbey began a group three years ago with 100 volunteers working in the Coupeville area.

This organization, born on South Whidbey, has multiplied beyond its origin, following in the footsteps of the original.