THE THREE MEN CLIMB INTO THE white van in a parking lot near a church in downtown Hackensack, New Jersey. George Crooks, 74, drives. Ted Duggan, 73, rides shotgun, a map of northern New Jersey on his lap. Bob Funsch, who may be younger but won’t say, is in back.
“We’re on our way to install those grab bars for you,” Duggan says into a cell phone, over the rattle of tools and hardware in the van.
Crooks and Duggan and Funsch are amateur handymen who spend every Friday working for Chore, a remarkable program run by the Volunteer Center of Bergen County. They are among 30 volunteers—average age 73, oldest age 87—who bounce around the county in Chore’s two fully stocked vans doing minor home repairs for elderly and disabled people. Chore is a free service. The handypeople (one is a woman) donate their time. Clients pay only for parts.
In their flannel shirts and matching blue Chore jackets and baseball caps, Crooks and Duggan and Funsch are a crew. Crooks is a retired salesman. Duggan was a technician for AT&T. Funsch worked as a forester for the U.S. Forest Service. They have been working together at Chore for years, and it shows.
Their first stop: a tidy brick home in Upper Saddle River where Charles Harrigan, a 79-year-old retired stonemason, lives with his sister Eileen, a retired telephone operator. Harrigan recently lost both legs to diabetes, and his physical therapist recommended that he call Chore to install grab bars in the bathroom to help him get in and out of his wheelchair. The Harrigans also need a new showerhead.
The Chore guys look over the job, talk about it, take off their baseball caps, scratch their balding heads, decide how to do it, then change their minds two or three times. “Very foolishly, I thought you knew what you were doing,” Crooks good-naturedly gibes Duggan, who ignores him.
A former working man himself, Harrigan is drawn to the banter as Crooks and Duggan go to work, wheeling himself to the doorway of the bathroom.
“Ted was able to get that showerhead off,” Crooks notes. “Ted is very strong.”
“I looked at it,” Duggan says, “and it got frightened.”
“I don’t blame it,” Crooks mutters.
They can’t locate their stud finder and accuse each other of losing it; then Funsch finds it for them on the floor. At various times, they look for the drill, the ruler, the pencil, the screwdriver, the screws and the level. “We have a lot of senior moments,” Duggan admits cheerfully.
“Are you ready for the drill?” Crooks asks.
“Yes, ma’am. Or sir,” Duggan replies.
“How about Your Majesty?” Crooks suggests.
They soap the screws before screwing them in. “An old handyman’s trick,” they say, with the emphasis on old. They love these new battery-powered tools—no looking for outlets, no tripping over cords—but still like to make the last couple of turns of a screw by hand, just for feel. Duggan and Crooks grasp the new bars and pull. They nod at each other, satisfied. Another job well done, and in less than an hour.
Funsch, whose hand tremors keep him from doing many jobs, is in the living room taking care of the paperwork. Chore handymen routinely make up for each other’s weak points; if a volunteer’s eyesight is failing, for instance, his crewmates take over the squinty, fiddly work. If his memory is hazy, another guy makes sure the van is properly stocked for that day’s jobs.
Eileen Harrigan writes a check for $32 and gives Funsch a tour of her paintings and her brother’s carvings. The Harrigans tell Funsch about themselves, and he is an appreciative audience. Duggan and Crooks say that if they didn’t have Funsch for a “PR man,” every job would take longer because the clients would be constantly interrupting them to chat.
“I can’t get over this service, it’s so wonderful,” Eileen Harrigan says as the guys pack up their tool kits.
“Plus I wouldn’t have expected to get three guys as good-looking as this,” she adds coyly. The guys don’t say anything. It’s not unusual for ladies to make a fuss over them and try to feed them. “My gosh, three handsome men in my living room at 9 o’clock in the morning,” one exuberant widow gushed. “I’ve got to call my girlfriends. . . .”
Crooks turns for a final word to the Harrigans. “You know, there’s a guarantee on our work,” he informs them. “Those grab bars won’t fall off for 10 minutes or till we’re out of town, whichever comes first.” Everybody laughs.
Funsch leaves an envelope so the Harrigans can mail a contribution to Chore. The average client sends in a few dollars, but those who can afford more—clients need not be poor, only over age 60 or disabled—sometimes send in $50 or $100. Bergen County kicks in about $80,000 of Chore’s annual $122,000 budget—the rest comes from the United Way, federal grants and individual donations—and the county thinks it is a bargain. “It’s a very effective program, and it’s a very efficient program,” says Anne Ciavaglia, director of the county’s Division of Senior Services. “The money really goes a long way.”
|TIME AND TALENTS|
Can you spend a little time with a young person who needs a friend? Can you serve soup or take a single mom to a garage sale so she can buy clothes for her children? Can you swing a hammer or rake leaves? Do you have any time or talents that you can share for the good of the community?
Many Americans would like to do more volunteer work but don’t know how to go about finding the right opportunity. If you’re interested, check in your area with churches, social service organizations and community service groups such as the United Way or the YMCA.
In addition, the Points of Light Foundation and the Volunteer Center National Network coordinate nationwide activities to provide citizens with listings of local volunteer opportunities and resources. For more information on finding volunteer opportunities close to your home, go to www.pointsoflight.org or call 202-729-8000.—T.H.
Ciavaglia cites an added benefit: When Chore volunteers see that a client may be struggling, they report it. Social workers then arrange help such as housecleaning or Meals on Wheels. “The volunteers become eyes and ears for us,” she says.
Chore handypeople visited almost 2,000 homes last year and completed more than 3,000 jobs. In addition to putting in grab bars, they repair leaky toilets and faucets, replace electrical switches and fixtures, install and repair railings. They caulk and weatherstrip, fix storm doors, replace broken glass panes, snake out drains, repair doorbells, and replace locks. For some frail clients, they replace burned-out light bulbs. They are not allowed to do routine yard work such as raking leaves or shoveling snow. They are not supposed to lift anything heavy, and they may climb up only four steps on a ladder.
Back in the van, the guys stop for coffee, the only break during their 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift. Drop them anywhere in Bergen County and odds are they will know the most direct route to the nearest doughnut shop. They have four jobs on this day, but some days they have five or six.
Edgar and Angelina De Fino have lived in their immaculate home in Wyckoff for 62 years; they are both almost 90. “You don’t look a day over 85,” Duggan tells them. They beam.
The Chore guys anchor a wobbly banister and fix a leaky toilet and faucet. “You’re going to have to pay the grand sum of $2,” Funsch announces. Edgar De Fino says he probably would have had to pay workmen $350. He promises to make a nice donation to Chore. “There’s a place in heaven for people like you,” Angelina De Fino tells the guys.
“That’s good,” Duggan retorts, kidding that his wife’s opinion of him isn’t quite that high.
On the road again, the Chore guys recall some of their more memorable clients, like the retired professional magician who wowed them with card tricks. They say that if they weren’t doing Chore today, they’d probably be working on their own homes or gardens. “This does us more good than the clients,” Crooks says. “All my life I’ve benefited from community services. Now that I’m retired, it’s an opportunity to give something back to the community.” His sidekicks nod.
“It keeps me active and interested in what’s going on around me,” Duggan agrees. “I find the work and the people fascinating, always something different. And there’s instant gratification.”
“Right,” Crooks says. “You go to a house where they’ve got a problem, and most of the time you solve it right away.”
Back at the parking lot, across from the church where the Volunteer Center of Bergen County has its headquarters, the guys talk shop with other Chore crews. Twice a year the whole gang gets together for an informal lunch and compares notes on where to get the best supplies for the best prices. The volunteers also swap stories. Gayla Merryman, a retired project supervisor for major developments and one of only two women volunteers in Chore’s 26-year history, tells of an old lady who had two enormous parrots in a big cage. She put on a CD of an opera, and the birds joined in. “The parrots were singing whole arias,” Merryman marvels. “With vibrato.”
Merryman learned home repairs from her father, following him around the house and helping as a child. She went on to help manage major construction projects, including the building of Battery Park City. She is 66 but doesn’t look it.
Come to think of it, all the Chore volunteers seem to look young for their years.
Journalist and author Timothy Harper (email@example.com, www.timharper.com) works with another Volunteer Center of Bergen County program, which matches adult mentors with neglected and abused children.