Small repairs making a big difference

A ramp built by the Helping Hands ministry of Northside UMC. Dr. Fred Yarger is on the right.

December 30, 2019

While serving as a local church pastor, Dr. Fred Yarger would regularly visit the members of his congregation at their homes. During his visits, he saw the little things that needed doing – such as a loose handrail or missing step. On his day off, he would come back and make the repairs. 
In 2000, Dr. Yarger retired from Northside UMC in Brewster, MA. He stayed in the area, and since 2002 has been part of a ministry that grew out of those visits called Helping Hands. 
“I wish every church had a group like this,” Dr. Yarger said. “As a pastor, I've seen it in every home I visited … you just see the needs people have, particularly where they can't afford it or are elderly or handicapped or whatever —  it's just they can't do it, so it's a ministry that needs to be done.”
Helping Hands assists those who cannot do household repairs or projects themselves either because they don’t have the ability to or they lack the finances. With about 10 volunteers, we probably cover about 70 homes a year meeting people’s requests, Dr. Yarger said. 
Over the last 18 years, those requests have included everything from rebuilding an entire second-story deck for a family whose deck was condemned by their insurance company to burying a rescue cat. Not to mention the countless “honey-do list” items like fixing a faucet, replacing the batteries in safety devices or moving window air conditioners in homes of the elderly.
“They can have two or three things or 16 things on the list,” he said. “But it’s all important because they can’t do it.”
Helping Hands doesn’t ask for any money, but often people want to make a donation, and the ministry raises about $10,000 a year. The money goes back into the ministry and some has been used to do projects at the church. Helping Hands put in the AV and audio systems and a new kitchen. 
When Hurricane Rita hit in 2005, the group decided to use their skills helping those recovering from disasters. They made regular trips for a number of years. 
Dr. Yarger would take two groups, from 20 to 25 each group, each for one week. They then decided they would take both groups together for two weeks and “do twice as much.”
They stopped making those trips a couple of years ago. 
“Every time we hear about the fires in California and the tornadoes in the Midwest, hurricanes in the South, we think, ‘we gotta do it,’ but we’re getting too old to respond,” he said.
The trailer they used is now for sale. Dr. Yarger said he hopes another church will purchase it and use for this type of ministry. (Click the link to find out more about the trailer).
“[The trailer] has been very helpful to us … we can basically go to a place and don't have to keep running the hardware store to get something or go home get more tools because we have at least two of everything,” he said.  
While the repair ministry is continuing, they now seek out work closer to home in central Cape Cod. 
Helping Hands finds folks who need help by connecting with area groups such as the Veterans Association, the Visiting Nurses, and the local senior center. They also work with the patient navigators at the local hospital whose job is to ensure those leaving the hospital have what they need at home. 
“What we’ve become proficient at and the go-to people for now is building ramps and safety devices inside the homes,” Dr. Yarger said.
Depending on its size, a handicapped access ramp can cost $12,000, he said. Those who don’t have the resources simply do without. “We can build a ramp in a day, day and a half, for maybe $600.”
When the ramp is no longer needed, the team can take it apart and reuse the materials for a ramp at another home. Entrances are fairly standard so it’s not hard to adapt and reuse the parts, he said. 
“We have no idea how many ramps we’ve built in the last 8 or 10 years; we’ve just lost count,” he said. “We just finished one 3 or 4 weeks ago and have to do another one right after Christmas.”
While most of their work is done for free or at cost, a couple of times a year Helping Hands will take on a job.  “A job” is when the group agrees to work for someone who has the means to pay a contractor but would like to support Helping Hands. The proceeds from the job are then put toward work at the home of someone who could not otherwise afford it. 
“We’ve probably raised $150,000 over the last 18 years, and we always give it all away every year,” Dr. Yarger said.
Some of that money has been spent on things other than building projects – including some college and seminary scholarships, as well as airline tickets for people who could not afford to visit ailing family members who are far away.
“It’s been incredible,” he said. “It’s been a real journey.”
Many in the group are retired professionals and executives who had never really done this sort of work before, Dr. Yarger said, “and they love it.”
It doesn’t feel like work, he said, and he doubts that any of them would do it if it was a paying job for them. 
“We have fun,” Dr. Yarger said. “We grouse at each other. We tell tales — and we get things done.”
 “The future’s one of things that scares me a little bit, because I don't see some young guys coming behind us seven or eight old codgers,” he said. 
Dr. Yarger said he’s spoken to congregations about starting their own Helping Hands ministry, and he’s happy to help a congregation figure out how to get started. The key, he said, is having a one or two people who are truly dedicated to it.
“It is something that most any group can do,” he said. “You learn as you go. Only one or two of us knew, and the rest were willing to learn.”
When the ministry first began Dr. Yarger and another man were asked to replace a cracked ceramic floor tile. With the homeowner looking on as the two began chiseling out the broken tile, they realized each thought the other was the one who knew how to do it. The homeowner’s confidence may have been shaken, but the job got done.
Over the years, Helping Hands went from replacing one tile to doing whole floors and more, Dr. Yarger said. 
“You never know if you can do something until you try it,” he said.