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Alabama Power Foundation grant helps nonprofit put hearts, hands to work for families

When Rebecca Mason got the word that her husband, John, was cleared to come home after three months in the hospital, she breathed a huge sigh of relief – until she realized they faced another hurdle.

“Unless he was going to sleep in the garage, he couldn’t come home,” said Rebecca, noting the couple lives in a split-level house.

After weeks in bed, John was returning home in a wheelchair. He had undergone emergency surgery in August to repair a ruptured ulcer. While in the hospital, John developed multiple complications, including sepsis, and spent 18 days on a ventilator.

“He had to learn to walk again and was in a wheelchair all the time in the beginning,” Rebecca said. “I called the Church at Brook Hills where we attend and said, ‘What am I going to do?’”

The church introduced Mason to Hearts in Hands, a volunteer, nonprofit organization that assists people in need in Jefferson and Shelby counties, particularly those who are elderly and disabled and who need critical home repairs. One of the organization’s specialties is building and installing wheelchair ramps.

Rebecca said 18 volunteers came to her home with their tools and built a 48-foot-long ramp high enough to clear the 10 steps leading to the Masons’ front porch. They also built a short ramp over the threshold, which allows John to easily roll his wheelchair through the front door. One of the volunteers, who is a retired plumber, came to the Mason’s rescue when their kitchen sink backed up and began overflowing while the workers were at the home.

Although John is now using a walker, he still cannot use his right arm, is in constant pain and needs his wheelchair on “bad days,” Rebecca said.

She said the dedication of the volunteers was “amazing to see.”

“They were wonderful. They were funny, they were kind and they were warm. There was no way John could have come home without Hearts in Hands.”

The organization’s 270 volunteers also replace floors, walls and doors, patch leaky roofs, install handrails, repair plumbing and bathrooms that have become nearly unusable.

“We help those who can’t help themselves,” said Charlie Stewart, Hearts in Hands board member. “So many people make just enough money to survive until something breaks. Then, it’s tougher on them than most people because they can’t afford to get it fixed and they can’t do it themselves. Those are the people we try to help.”

Carl Payne, Hearts in Hands board president, believes that the organization’s impact remains long after the volunteers go home.

“We give people hope,” he said. “When you get so far down you don’t even have a bathroom, you lose all hope. By showing them that there’s somebody who cares and wants to help them, that gives them enough hope to do something for themselves. It changes their life. They see a light at the end of the tunnel and they can pull themselves out.”

The Alabama Power Foundation recently awarded a grant to Hearts in Hands, which it will use to buy materials for projects. In 2021, volunteers completed 218 home-repair projects, including 19 wheelchair ramps. This year, they are on target to implement 276 projects – 83 of which have been completed.

“Alabama Power really gave us a shot in the arm by providing the money to buy these materials,” said Connie Payne, Hearts in Hands board secretary. “Everyone who works is a volunteer. Nobody gets paid, and we have very low overhead, with 95% of our funding going directly to the client.”

“We feel like God gave us this money to help people. And we want to be good stewards of the money and use it wisely,” added Carl.

Members of the Magic City Chapter of the Alabama Power Service Organization (APSO) are planning to help Hearts in Hands volunteers with three projects during the Southern Company Week of Service April 17-23. The projects include building wheelchair ramps for two older adults in the West End area of Birmingham, and replacing the siding of a woman’s home in Wenonah, another Birmingham neighborhood.

Hearts in Hands was established in 2011 by Sysco Foods retiree Frank Burder.

“He realized that there are thousands of people who don’t have running water or can’t use their bathroom because the toilet is stopped up or can’t get out of the house because they don’t have a wheelchair ramp. And he said, ‘I’m going to help,’” said Stewart.

Now, the organization is building at least one wheelchair ramp each week, along with making other home repairs, Stewart said.

Birmingham-area widow Paulette Stokes is one of those who have received a helping hand. The floor in her only bathroom had rotted, and she was afraid to walk on it. Hearts in Hands volunteers rebuilt the bathroom floor, installed a walk-in shower and repaired the leaks in the exterior wall that had caused the damage.

The volunteers also repaired the bedroom ceiling, which had collapsed due to leaks in the roof.

“I couldn’t afford to do any of those things,” Stokes said. “I had no idea that the Lord would bless me like he did with Hearts in Hands. They just took care of those things for me. They are the best people anybody could know.”

Carl said Hearts in Hands partners with churches and organizations that can provide families with assistance. For instance, if a family needs food, Hearts in Hands connects them with a local food bank.

“If we can’t help, we find someone who can,” Carl said. “We form relationships with our clients and get to know them. They become part of our lives.”

Stewart has been a Hearts in Hands volunteer for more than 10 years.

“I feel like we are all on this Earth to do more than just for ourselves,” he said. “Life isn’t about going to work every day, making money and having a car, because you can’t take those things with you. The only thing you can take with you is what you do for others. You give your heart, your time and effort; that’s forever.”

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