One day last February Marlene Ness was waiting for her husband to show up for morning coffee after spending the night in a small travel trailer they’d just bought for $200.
“Instead, a county sheriff’s deputy showed up and told me there’d been a fire, and that he was dead,” she said. “I wanted to die, too, except that someone had to take care of the kids.”
Eric’s death couldn’t have come at a worse time. “We’d been almost homeless,” Ness said, “living in a camp trailer, not much room for four people, so we bought this old double-wide for a dollar and about $100 in back taxes and were going to fix it up.”
They bought the travel trailer to provide more living space while Eric was working on the double-wide. However, he died of smoke inhalation when the travel trailer caught fire his first night there, leaving Marlene nearly broke with only the mold-infested double-wide to live in with her two high school age kids, Destiny and Caleb.
But now, thanks to the efforts of a few good friends and volunteers, the trailer has been completely renovated top to bottom. “They even fixed Eric’s picnic table that his family had in Ballard when he was a kid. I’m overwhelmed,” Ness said.
Efforts to clean up the double-wide had begun sporadically after Eric’s death, but in March when Garnell Bland saw her living situation, she knew something had to be done.
“She had no kitchen at all, and the place was just an empty, dirty shell. She was really in tough shape and alone,” Bland said.
Fast forward to September and nearly 80 volunteers converged at the site in Birch Bay’s Plaza Park and in four days completely restored her home, including taking the inside back to the studs to eliminate the mold, drywalling, painting, flooring, carpeting and landscaping. They installed a new kitchen, appliances and all, put in new lights, added a deck and repaired two others, put in new windows and added vegetable and flower gardens, a lawn, fencing and painted the outside.
They finished last Friday at 5 o’clock. Half an hour later, Bland met Ness and her older daughter Kim at the Birch Bay–Lynden Road entrance to the trailer park.
The house was hidden behind a large moving van containing all of Ness’s furniture and personal belongings that had been stored during the renovation. At a signal the truck was driven aside and Ness saw her freshly painted house complete with a new lawn and garden.
“They got out of the car, everybody was crying, it was really good!” said Eileen Clausen, whose son Shaun is best friends with Caleb Ness, a senior at Blaine high school.
“Oh, my goodness,” said Ness, 52, “There aren’t words to describe how I felt. It was incredible that so many people would work so hard and they didn’t even know me. Out of the goodness of their hearts they did something that’s just overwhelming.”
It was also the first collaboration between the Whatcom Volunteer Center and volunteers from the Bellingham Home Depot store.
“It was a big one for us,” said volunteer center coordinator Sue Ellen Heflin, “because we usually do improvements or projects for places like Brigid Collins House in Bellingham, but to do a big renovation like this is new, as is working with Home Depot’s staff volunteers.”
“Working with the Volunteer Center is new but definitely something we’d like to do again,” said Bellingham Home Depot manager Deanne Clawson. Home Depot volunteers often find themselves going to Everett or Seattle for projects, but now they’ve found a way to do more closer to home. Clawson said “There are bound to be more.”
It all began with her assistant manager, Quanah Blaine, calling Heflin in June to see if more manpower could be mustered for this project so it could be completed in a few days. Heflin was also drawn to the project and wanted the challenge of working on a bigger scale.
Many connected with the project said that if there was one name that needed to be mentioned as the driving force to make all this happen it would be Garnell Bland. She went to dozens of stores in the area asking for donations, including Home Depot where she asked about used cabinets from any remodeling projects they were doing. She spoke to Chris Wickham at Home Depot, who made the project his personal cause.
He was joined by Home Depot volunteer co-captains Barry Donaldson, Melissa Wiltsey and Amy Frost, and together they got a $10,000 grant from Home Depot management to fund the basic effort.
“We talked with our vendors and others called local businesses and it really took off,” Wiltsey said. Some of the companies sell to Home Depot and others are local independents such as Smith Gardens, she said, “but a lot of people did a lot of work all coordinated and focused on the week after Labor Day.”
“I can’t believe this is my house,” Ness said. “I couldn’t have dreamt of anything like this happening to me. They did such a beautiful job. Six months ago I didn’t think I would ever be happy again after losing Eric, but my mouth is tired now from smiling so much.”
Happy to be in a liveable, clean and healthy home, Ness said that for the first time in months she’s “made two meals that are not out of a microwave or a slow cooker. They’re real home-cooked meals! Had it not been for Garnell we’d still be living in this place just like it was. And believe me, Home Depot has my business forever. Thanks to her I have my children with me in a nice beautiful place for us to live.”
In addition to the Whatcom Volunteer Center, local and national businesses that participated in the renovation of Ness’s home include: SleepMasters, Wilson Motors, Albertsons, Costco, Donaghy Construction, Mason’s Contracting, GMA Construction, Grow Source Landscape, Lehmann's Appliance, Cabinets Inc., Smith Gardens, JB Sod, Olive Garden, Bellingham, Penske Trucking, Behr Paints, Eastside Masonry, Woods Coffee, Little Caesar’s Pizza, Blaine Food Bank, TW Enterprises, Northwest Electronic Recyclers, Scott’s Miracle Gro, Cost Cutter Grocery, Bow Wow and Woofs, Haggens, Trader Joe’s, A Sweet Country Kennel, and lodging at Semiahmoo Resort.