By: Michelle L. Clark
If we were to contemplate all our hands do in a day, how much would we find truly made a difference? How far would you step out in faith to see the completion of a good work? It’s questions like these that led the hearts of a few willing individuals to found Helping Hands, a not-for-profit in Wildwood that builds stable homes for needy families.
The organization, run mostly by residents of the Villages, has recently celebrated its 10th year and its 25th home construction project. The group starts by seeking the neediest in the community and then handles all the details of building them a safe and comfortable home. Twenty-five to 30 families apply for the Helping Hands Home projects each year, and after several in-depth committee discussions, the group is able to pick two.
With a mission to be a light and to reach out with helping hands, they have built a successful charity which has fostered close relationships with local businesses, partnered with Kid Central to establish the Wildwood Family Resource Center, and branched out into a Bargains and Blessings resale shop which helps fund continued work in their community.
To Gene Barton, the organization’s chairman and founding member, it seems as though the helping hands won’t stop multiplying. Currently they employ 300 volunteers for all its projects and endeavors. But when they began in 2007, they were just 12 Bible study goers charged with what Gene calls “stepping out of the boat.”
The faithful group decided their ‘stepping out’ would be to do bit of minor repairs for some folks who did not have the money or time to do it themselves. But as he often does, God had other plans. After soliciting the Habitat for Humanity director for candidates, they settled on a family of five: a single mother, three children and a grandmother.
The mother worked nonstop to support the family, while the grandmother, though illiterate, stayed home to care for the kids.
“She worked at Winn-Dixie for a full day and then she went straight to work at Kentucky Fried Chicken,” says Gene, remembering what led them to help this family. “We looked at the situation, how the house looked, and knew that was it.”
But the need was greater than the group anticipated. “We went out, and when we saw the house we thought, ‘there’s no way!’ We almost gave up,” Gene recalls. “We then decided to tackle whatever we could.” Not putting their own limitations on what they could do, but committing to let God lead, the team concluded that the habitation was unfit and had it demolished.
To rebuild from scratch, they went to their church for help. A collection was taken up at New Covenant Methodist Church to get the process started. Each of the Bible study members also pledged an amount towards the goal. Then some unlikely divine intervention sealed the deal.
“About that time after the tornadoes came through here,” says Gene, “we had people here in the Villages offering all kinds of stuff. So we used what could use for the first house, but then we had so much left over!” The group held a rummage sale, which raised further funds for the cause. So, through the generosity of its members and the community, the 12 were able to purchase a mobile home which they remodeled and placed on the lot. The family moved in that April.
But one good deed and done was not enough. There was something else written for these faithful few. “The plan was to do the first house and be done!” Gene readily admits, but $6,280 was left in the project account afterwards. “Eighty dollars more than we started with,” he adds with a chuckle. “God said, ‘We ain’t done.’”
Helping Hands continues to serve new families every year, but also maintain relationships with people they’ve helped. Each of the home project recipients are assigned mentors who stay with them. They provide courses in family finance, have barbecues, and share life. And throughout the year they have events to raise money for more good work: a pancake breakfast in February, a golf tournament in April, and a Christmas concert, among many others.
Helping Hands has grown to be a multifaceted organization making a lasting impact on its surrounding community. It is doing grand things for lives in need, but it has also pushed people to act on their faith. Apostle Paul says in Galatians that we are called to freedom as Christians, and we are to use that freedom to serve one another; this is what Vineyard founder John Wimber called “Doing the Stuff.” Martin Luther King, Jr., left us with this: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is ‘What are you doing for others?’” Great people of faith, who have made a true difference, have taken seriously Christ’s charge to love one another and to “step out of the boat.”
The organization was awarded the Champion’s Hope Award from the Governor’s office last December. Gene wants their accomplishments to help other communities begin programs like those Helping Hands has brought to Wildwood. With the proceeds from the Bargains and Blessings store, they help other local charities get started. But because they are limited to about a 10-mile radius from The Villages, Gene has been campaigning for churches and communities to develop their own “out of the boat” organizations. “It’s so hard to get started,” he admits, “but we step out of that boat!”
He finds humor in the honest truth that they didn’t know what exactly they were doing, but Gene wants others to know that’s okay when you’re letting God lead.
“People step back and say, ‘Oh, we can’t do anything like that,’ and we would have said the same thing if they would have came to us in the first place, but going into it, we didn’t worry about the end result. We just took one step at a time, and each step we took opened more paths.”
For your information:
Rick Warren’s “Better Together” was the Bible study that spurred the group to form Helping Hands.
The book God’s Helping Hands was written about the Helping Hands journey. it is available on Amazon or from the office at 352-750-4529.
Volunteer opportunities are always available helping at the store and on construction sites, providing lunches, mentoring, administrative work, and so on. To get involved please contact Jill Beck at email@example.com or Gary Search at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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