'Leave it better than we found it'

May 19—ASHLAND — Nearly 200 volunteers donning gray T-shirts dispersed throughout Ashland's city limits on Saturday for the 22nd Repair Affair to tackle a variety of projects for citizens in need of a set of helping hands.

D.J. Rymer, the event's organizer for the past four years, said more than 50 projects made it onto Saturday's list, from mulching, weeding and pressure-washing to full-out construction jobs requiring the help of certified laborers.

Chris Hutchinson, owner of Now Service Pros and Statewide Handyman Services, said although he didn't diminish the work of volunteers sprucing up flower beds, his employees were licensed and trained laborers ready for an extensive project.

Rymer said after visiting the Jenkins Street residence of 91-year-old Connie French's prior to the event, he knew just where to send Hutchinson and his team.

On Saturday, a fleet of work vans and trucks lined both sides of the narrow, dead-end street — an easily overlooked lane just yards away from the always-bustling intersection of 6th Street and Blackburn Avenue.

Mrs. French sat in a narrow enclosed entry point of her home, watching carefully through the windows as nail guns popped and heavy work boots thumped across lumber.

French, despite her age and mobility challenges from a diagnosis of cerebral palsy, only had one wish to add to Rymer's list of projects on Saturday: to be able to sit out on the front porch of the home she's lived in for more than 40 years.

"That project is traditionally out of the scope of what we can do," Rymer said, recalling his "powerful" visit to French's home, where the struggle for French to simply open her door was evident.

With Hutchinson's previous request for an extensive project, Rymer had just the assignment.

With French watching from the window, Hutchinson held out a photo of what was left of the front porch, the same photo he had shown his wife a couple weeks prior.

"I told Rymer, you know this can't be done in a day," Hutchinson laughed. "I showed my wife the photo and said, 'the roof is gone,' to which she replied: 'Are you saying you can't do it?'"

"He went out and looked and said, 'I'll have 14 of my guys and we'll get this done. We'll make this right for Ms. Connie,'" Rymer said of Hutchinson's commitment.

With donations from Patton Lumber, who Hutchinson said provided "every piece of material" needed for the job and his donation of 14 paid and skilled workers, Mrs. French's dream was becoming a reality.

"Some people want babied," French said as she took a break from overseeing the construction, denying help as she walked toward the front of her home. "I can do anything I want to."

French said as a young girl, although barred from attending school due to her physical condition, her parents treated her like all the rest, so it's no surprise the 91-year-old wasn't expecting a handout when Rymer arrived at her door.

French's late husband, Elwood, who passed in 2009, had built onto the small home on Jenkins Street, including the front porch.

"I got lucky," French said, adding not only because her porch made it onto the Repair Affair's list, but because she was told she'd never live to see the view from a porch at the age of 91.

With the diagnosis of cerebral palsy, French said she was told her life expectancy would expire at the age of 25.

"And I outlived every one of them," French said.

These days French said she loves the outdoors where she can spend time with her dog, Suzie, a pound puppy she rescued eight years ago.

Prior to the Repair Affair and Hutchinson's team, Suzie was bound to a small fenced area at the side of French's home, but Rymer said French and Suzie can now soak up the sun from a brand new porch.

"What a story there," Rymer said of French. "What a difference that makes to her quality of life. Now she can enjoy outside with her dog, whereas before, it was unsafe for her to do so.

"The were phenomenal," Rymer said of Hutchinson's group, adding Hutchinson not only donated manpower, but "he bought her some porch furniture," and plans to install a front porch swing later this week.

"Now the dog can go out and sit with her on that new porch. It pulls on my heart strings, but really, every project is a feel-good project," Rymer said.

Rymer said the yearly event usually takes on about 40 projects but this year tallied 59.

"It's the most we've had in years," Rymer said. "Our goal is a one-day event but sometimes we take it a little further. It was exciting to see the groups we had from civic organizations, employers, corporations, even run-of-the-mill families getting involved to make a difference."

This year Rymer said the event brought in 250 volunteers and earned major donations, including a $20,000 grant from Kentucky Power and substantial amounts from churches and individual donors.

"We had a great year this year. ... The camaraderie of everyone willing to work, the good weather and overall just making a difference," Rymer said.

"It was always very humbling as a volunteer. I've been part of this project for probably 15 or 16 years and I've been running it for the past four," Rymer said, adding his hope as organizer is to "leave it better than we found it."

Rymer said even with his months of preparation every year before the big Saturday, "the success of this project is only because of volunteers."

"If we didn't have these organizations, youth groups, we wouldn't have a Repair Affair and it wouldn't be our 22nd year."

Of this year's projects, Rymer said teams took on houses throughout Ashland for simple gardening tasks, weatherizing window seals, wheelchair ramp construction and handrail installations.

In another example of the event's impact, Rymer said one elderly woman, who played music during Sunday worship services, had been unable to attend church because of mobility issues preventing her from being able to safely leave her home.

"By just providing those handrails she has an easier and safer way to make it to a vehicle to get to church," Rymer said.

In addition to volunteer efforts, Rymer issued "thanks" to local businesses who donated food, ice and water, including Jolly Pirate Donuts, Clarks Pump-n-Shop, King's Diner and Tim Hortons.

Rymer said he's always looking forward to next year by adding more volunteers and projects, and for those interested, to contact the City of Ashland or Build Ashland.