West Side Helping Hands volunteers perform repair and cleaning work at the home of Marie Colbert, a West Springfield resident living on a fixed income.

Reminder Publishing submitted photo

WEST SPRINGFIELD — Marie Colbert is a retired payroll clerk living in a small ranch house on Westfield Street. She takes pride in her home and was frustrated when she couldn’t keep it pristine.

“The house sits in the shade of a big tree. Part of it doesn’t get much sun, and there was a lot of mold on the walls. It was really looking bad, like it wasn’t being maintained,” she said.

Volunteers Lenny Latshaw, left, and Dave Fedor work on repairs to Colbert’s Westfield Street home this spring.
Reminder Publishing submitted photo

Colbert is living on a fixed income, so it’s always a challenge paying for critical needs like food and utilities. With little left over, there was no cash to repair broken steps in the back of her house, fix a fence and shutters or seal a major crack in the garage floor.

Because she couldn’t pay for upkeep and repairs, Colbert turned to West Side Helping Hands, a nonprofit group that took on the task of helping her out. They built a deck off the back door, restored the fence and shutters, washed away the mold, installed energy efficient lighting and did some landscaping that included weeding, trimming and mowing the lawn.

With thousands of cars passing by every day, along with friends who drop in, Colbert is now proud of her home and eager to welcome visitors.

“I’m very pleased. They worked really hard and were really professional. It looks fantastic. Everyone’s commenting on it to me,” she said.

West Side Helping Hands accepts applications every year from people like Colbert who need help maintaining their homes. The group picks one house every May, gathering more than two dozen skilled and unskilled volunteers who tackle and fix problems in a single day.

“All of the labor is donated, we just need to find the money to cover the cost of materials, which we’ve been able to do pretty well so far,” said Richard Peck, the nonprofit’s secretary. “The cost of materials is a few thousand dollars a year. We’re on a shoestring budget. We’re very grassroots. We have some loyal donors who have helped us, and we’re always open to donations from new folks who admire what we do.”

The organization conducts at least one fundraiser in the fall. This year there will be a paper shredding event along with a chance, for a fee, to drop off electronics to be recycled. There will be more information about these fundraisers on the Helping Hands Facebook page.

The group was founded in 1992 and has funded more than three dozen home improvement projects since then. Hundreds of people have hammered, scrubbed and cleaned their way to refurbishing properties in dire need of attention.

Helping Hands accepts applications for help each fall through the town’s Community Development office. While there are relatively minor issues with some homes, others need so much work the group has to decline the application.

“We’ve had people who have problems with water leaking into the walls, structural problems and electrical issues that were just beyond what we could do in a day. We try to help people with physical or financial limitations, and while we can’t help with major projects, the need is still there,” said Peck.

The town of West Springfield has a formal housing rehabilitation program that gives eligible homeowners grants “to address code violations and accessibility upgrades for low-and moderate-income households,” according to the Community Development Department. Some of those repairs include electrical work and foundation repairs, along with fixes to roofs, chimneys, plumbing, furnaces and other areas.

Many of the homes Helping Hands spruces up could easily become rundown again, but Peck said the group tries to keep that from happening.

“People can contact us if they need more help. We’ll do what we can to take care of that around the time we’re doing another project,” he said.

Volunteers with Helping Hands work hard and fast to get the job done in a day, and then they stand back and look at a home that is sweeter than ever.

“We have a lot of fun joking around with each other, but we’re mindful that we’re helping someone who needs it, and we’re glad to do it,” said Peck. “It makes everybody feel as though what they’re doing is making a difference, and that’s what community is all about — helping each other when there is a need.”

For more information, contact Richard Peck at 413-244-1389 or Dori Hayes at 413-733-3843.

Staasi Heropoulos
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