“New Paltz Helps” volunteers assist neighbors who can’t help themselves

New Paltz resident Ed Burke (on far left) has assembled a team called “New Paltz Helps,” which assists neighbors with home maintenance issues beyond their skills They offer this help for free. Burke is pictured with (L-R): Matt Friedle, Dean Winslow and Joe Fennimore. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

There are many small-but-important jobs that must be done to keep up one’s quality of life in any living situation: light bulbs must be changed, toilet leaks fixed, doorknob screws tightened, storm windows removed or replaced. Not everyone has the skills, or even the physical capacity, to perform even the simplest of these tasks. For New Paltz residents who are unable to keep up with seemingly minor maintenance tasks, the problems can over time become quite major. There is now a group of residents who are dedicating some of their time to helping out their neighbors under the name “New Paltz Helps.”

The volunteer-driven service could be thought of as the flip side of the repair cafe movement: where that program helps people get items fixed if they can just bring them to a particular location, New Paltz Helps brings the fixing to one’s door for problems that cannot be moved. Hinges that need oiling, fluorescent bulb ballasts that need changing and toilets that intermittently run can’t be brought over to the Methodist Church when there’s a repair cafe in session, but New Paltz Helps volunteers can address those issues with just a little know-how and some tools.


New Paltz Helps is the brainchild of Ed Burke, who told the story of its genesis. He’s handy himself, and was asked to help a friend of his wife by changing the filters in her humidifier. “It was a ten-minute job,” he explained, “but her sink was leaking” in the kitchen, which he also addressed. Then, he needed to use the bathroom, and discovered that the toilet seat had one screw completely undone. “She’s 80 years old,” he said. “If she falls, she might not get up.” Driving home, Burke recalled that he “felt great” doing those things which were easy for him, but impossible for that senior citizen to address on her own. He decided he wanted to do more, and put out a call on Facebook for anyone else similarly inclined.

There is apparently a need to help one’s neighbors, because Burke got a healthy response. Ten others joined the merry band, including plumbers, carpenters, general handymen, a seamstress and a cosmetologist. The group’s focus is to visit a home to which they’ve been invited, and spend about an hour addressing issues raised by the resident or that they spot themselves. It’s specifically aimed to help people “who can’t help themselves, or don’t know where to turn,” rather than providing free maintenance for those who can afford to hire someone. For bigger problems, they will try to help the resident get the right professional for the job.

One thing Burke did not expect to draw upon for this effort is his experience as a landlord, but that’s already happened more than once. Some of the issues he and his colleagues have been asked to address are in fact the responsibility of the property owner, and he’s had conversations with some landlords in which he’s instructed them about their responsibilities. He’s been a member of the zoning board of appeals for four years and was just appointed to the landlord-tenant relations council as the owner of three rental properties. He’s not shy explaining to a landlord that apartments in the village must be registered and inspected annually, and that there’s a lot more a good landlord does for tenants.

“Sometimes we disagree on what constitutes ‘fixed,'” Burke said. Sometimes, such as when a senior citizen couldn’t get out her door after the most recent snowstorm, the landlord needs to be informed that village law requires the property owner to shovel within 24 hours. In one case, he visited an apartment which had no carbon monoxide detector, while there was one in the garage of the same house. Burke explained that those detectors are required per state law. “There are bad landlords,” he said, and those are among the most challenging situations his group has faced. In some cases, all he can do is inform tenants of their rights and allow them to decide how far they wish to push their landlord to fulfill the responsibilities laid out in state and local law.

New Paltz Helps is built around the helping, not publicity. Pictures of work in progress don’t include the faces of volunteers, and Burke declined to provide their names. He only consented to an interview because many of those in need don’t use Facebook, but do read the New Paltz Times. He would have preferred his own name not be included. On the other hand, in the interest of safety he said that volunteers will never be sent to a site alone.

Senior citizens are likely to be the main recipients of these services, as they are more likely to be limited in mobility. One client with arthritis couldn’t turn the hot water all the way off, in part because of that condition and in part because the knob had calcified. By the end of the visit, the knob had been replaced, pictures hung on the walls, and a leaky faucet repaired, saving on the water bill. Someone whose arms can’t be lifted above the head might find the simple task of changing a light bulb daunting. Burke wants to include his children in this effort to help instill a mindset of service.

Thus far, all of the people in need know Burke personally or by reputation. He hopes that this group will eventually be able to help one or two people every week, which will require going beyond his own social circle. Every request is discussed among group members to ascertain who might be best qualified to help; a secret Facebook group is used to hash those out as well as new challenges. One of those was a senior citizen who asked for a ride to a doctor’s appointment; Burke said that they are exploring liability issues and looking to identify the best way to help that individual.

Anyone who needs to kind of assistance being offered through New Paltz Helps is invited to call Burke directly; his number is 527-6539.


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