- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Staff writer Denise Barnes interviewed Steve Klitsch, founding member and marketing director of Hearts & Hands Inc.

Question: How did Hearts & Hands begin?

Answer: Our roots began at the Epworth United Methodist Church in Gaithersburg when a church member asked a couple of us why we send our youth organization to West Virginia every summer to fix and repair houses when we have a church member right here in Gaithersburg that has a leaky roof.

When Ken Dodd, also a founding member, and I learned of this, a light when on and we said, exactly, “Why go to West Virginia when we have people in our own back yard that need help?”

So our first project was for a widow on a fixed income. She had a leaky roof and needed some yard work and some painting done. Ken and I met with her and identified projects that adult volunteers, as well as high school-age volunteers, could perform in and around her home. …

We had about 40 volunteers that day, and this was our beginning — it was the start of Hearts & Hands.

Q: How many work projects do you handle a year?

A:Right now, we have a monthly project, usually the third Saturday of every month, and we take on at least one project or multiple projects, depending on the number of volunteers available. Some of these projects take just a few hours on a Saturday, and some take all day, while others require a second visit to finish up.

Q: How does your group determine who is eligible for your services?

A: The executive board meets on the second Thursdays of every month at the Upcounty Government Center in Germantown at 7:30 p.m. They review all of the applications, and after the applications are reviewed, there is discussion about feasibility, practicality and what kind of products we need to get and does this project put us at high risk of safety. After the discussion, the vote is taken and projects are approved.

If a project is not approved, we will sometimes refer them to Rebuilding Together, formerly known as Christmas in April. For those who are approved, we assign a house captain who will contact the homeowner and make arrangements for material delivery, workday preparations and that person becomes the go-to guy for any questions that volunteers might have about what to bring in regard to tools and equipment, lunch — things like that.

There’s no charge to the homeowner for our services, although they must sign a permission slip to allow us on the property to do the work.

Q: Does your group work year-round?

A: We learned in December, even though there’s a need to make repairs and improvements for folks, it’s a special time of year and it’s difficult to schedule volunteers with the homeowner to make improvements in their homes.

So we contacted the United States Marine Corps and asked about the Toys for Tots program. We learned at the time that there was no organization in Montgomery County distributing toys to needy children. The Marine Corps was excited to learn of our organization and our desire to help.

Over the past seven years, we have distributed over 140,000 toys and books to needy children in Montgomery County. So, yes, we do operate on a full calendar year.

Q: Has your group ever been recognized for its humanitarian efforts?

A: In 1999, Cygnus Publishing, the producer of “Kitchen and Bath Design News,” a trade magazine for contractors, recognized Hearts & Hands Inc. by presenting us with the industry leadership award for outstanding community service.

We were invited to Baltimore to a reception and dinner to receive the award in front of dozens of kitchen and bath industry experts. It was a very nice feeling to be recognized by Cygnus Publishing, and the award also came with a $500 check to our organization. Naturally, we used those funds to buy more materials for the next project.

Q: What does Hearts & Hands need most?

A: We are always looking for new volunteers, and we don’t need people who know how to remodel a house. Sometimes we just need cheerleaders — somebody just to tell us we are doing a good job, or somebody to run to the hardware store and buy a box of nails.

However, if there are volunteers who do have a collection of tools and are home-improvement savvy, we welcome them, too. It’s also a good opportunity for high school-age youth to earn community-service hours. The youth will always be under adult supervision at each of our projects and all anyone who might be interested has to do is give us a call or visit our Web site [www.heartsandhands.org].

Sometimes, our Web site lists upcoming projects and our next scheduled meeting. Our monthly meetings are open to everyone, and we never have a closed-door session.

What’s so great about Hearts & Hands is that it gives volunteers an opportunity to learn from our veteran staff members how to perform basic home repairs and maintenance — just by watching us perform the functions. Or by having volunteers apply themselves to the tasks at hand. That way, volunteers receive on-the-job training.

Q: Have you ever had a project leave an indelible mark on you and your team?

A: It was a resident of Mount Rainier, Md., a widow and grandmother who had one of her children living with her. Her son was under a doctor’s care and was unable to work or to go to school because of his condition. The grandmother worked part-time and had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. Her daughter was in jail for narcotics abuse and the grandmother was trying to raise five grandchildren alone.

Her house was falling apart. Three of her grandchildren were taken away and placed in foster homes.

We found out about this situation, and Mr. Dodd and I, along with the grandmother, evaluated the project. We understood the severity of the condition of the house as well as the [emotional] condition of the family.

We were able to get a toilet and kitchen cabinets donated. And in one day we replaced all of the kitchen cabinets with new ones. We replaced the refrigerator and installed a new stove. We repaired the rotten floor in the bathroom and installed a new toilet. We fixed the drain in the basement, rebuilt the stairs to the back porch, and patched holes in the plaster and did interior painting.

Well, we were finishing the project that Saturday, and a representative from Prince George’s Social Services came by the house. The agency knew we were there doing work, and the social services representative told us that we had done remarkable things with the house in a short period of time.

She said the only thing she could do was ask the judge to reinstate the three grandchildren back into this home.

So Hearts & Hands is more than fixing a leaky roof or putting in a new toilet — we are putting families back together as well.

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