Volunteers bring free firewood to families
By CATHY DYSON
It’s 19 degrees outside when men at a Caroline County church start loading wood into pickup trucks.
They’re dressed for the frigid weather, in heavy fleece, flannel, overalls and thick gloves. Plus, these “lumberjacks,” as they call themselves, are warmed by the fact that those who will receive the wood on this cold morning really need it.
“Within five to seven miles of here, we still have people with dirt floors and no indoor plumbing, and the only heat they get is from wood,” said Ken Grier.
Fellow woodcutter and hauler Bruce Sharpe chimed in: “There are some pretty mean situations out there.”
For 13 years, the lumberjacks at Wright’s Chapel United Methodist Church in Ladysmith have been trying to keep a fire going for their neighbors. The effort is coordinated by Cleve Robeson, a 58-year-old who’s the baby of the bunch.
Most of his fellow lumberjacks are retired and in their 60s or 70s, and a few have physical problems. Paul Lynch was born with spina bifida, but can operate the machine that splits wood.
Leroy Leger, 72, walks with a cane after a stroke two years ago, but still tosses chunks of wood into truck beds. He rides with Richard Coons, 75, the senior member of the group. Coons brings along a stepstool to help Leger get in and out of his truck.
Some of the men served in the military or law enforcement, others drove trucks and delivered mail, but all put their axes, mauls and brute strength to good use for the program that operates year-round.
The Caroline lumberjacks split wood in the spring and summer, then deliver truckloads from October to March. The program is totally volunteer; the church doesn’t reimburse the men for the gas or equipment used.
Wright’s Chapel is one of several churches in the Fredericksburg region with a wood ministry, though the Caroline group may be among the more prolific woodcutters.
Each Wednesday in winter, about eight to 10 members haul about 15 to 20 loads—each containing about half a cord of wood—to families in the area. Last February, the group reached a milestone when it delivered its 1,000th load of wood.
“It’s very beneficial to the community,” said Karen Washington, a benefits supervisor at Caroline County’s Department of Social Services.
She provides names to church workers of families who need wood. Many are elderly women, Robeson said, who often have to choose among food, medicine or wood.
“I really don’t know” what people would do without the ministry, Washington said.
Social services offers a heating-fuel benefit twice a year that can be applied to the purchase of firewood.
“It’s just supplemental,” she said. “It’s not going to carry them through the whole winter.”
‘IN OUR BACKYARD’
The Wright’s Chapel ministry helped spawn similar programs at three other churches in Caroline and Hanover counties.
Others who cut wood say there’s clearly a need for more such ministries, especially in rural areas where people still burn wood.
“We can’t accommodate the whole community,” said Joe Minter, who leads a group of woodcutters at Round Hill Baptist Church in King George County. “There’s enough of a need out there that we can’t do it all.”
Wilderness Community Church in Spotsylvania County also provides wood to recipients selected through state agencies. Many of its clients rely solely on wood for heat because it’s cheaper than propane or electricity, said Lisa Tucker, the church’s office manager.
Like the volunteers in Caroline, Tucker sees “great needs” as a result of the recession, as well as families who always have struggled.
“You don’t have to go to a Third World country to have some of the poverty that’s located in our backyard,” she said. “But sometimes I think there’s a blind eye turned to it.”
Mount Ararat Baptist Church in Stafford County schedules workdays throughout the year when 10 to 50 people, from middle-schoolers to adults, come and split wood.
After the wood ages several months, the volunteers load it onto dump trucks and haul it to homes. The church provides the only source of firewood for about 12 families, said church member William Brazell.
Most are in Stafford, but one recipient is a Bowling Green woman on oxygen, he said.
‘A GREAT FEELING’
The churches typically locate wood the same way: Someone will call a member and say he has a few downed trees. Would church members like to come get them?
Wright’s Chapel has the added benefit of getting wood from logging and electric companies.
Downed trees that the companies would have to dispose of at landfills—for a fee—are donated instead to the church.
The volunteers also get some divine help.
“Whenever our supply gets a little low, it seems like we have another storm or something that brings down another tree,” said Minter in King George.
The volunteer lumberjacks throughout the region enjoy the chance to be involved in a ministry that yields such tangible results as keeping people warm.
“At the end of the day, when you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing—taking care of people who can’t take care of themselves or afford a $200 electricity bill—that’s a great feeling,” Brazell said.
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425