Heroes of Home and Hearth
In fine weather, Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay is a playground of kayaks, sailboats and lighthouses set against glorious sunsets. But when windstorms and hurricanes strike, the area becomes littered with downed trees that snag power lines and vex homeowners.
One Knights of Columbus council in North Beach, on the bay’s western shore, has turned these dangerous inconveniences into an opportunity to provide free home heating fuel to needy members of the community. Since 2009, Calvert Council 7870 has partnered with the Ladies of Charity Food Pantry at St. Anthony of Padua Church to collect, cut, deliver and stack firewood for low-income families and individuals.
And during a winter characterized by polar vortexes and arctic blasts, staying warm has proved to be more important and more expensive than ever.
SETTING A SPARK
About 10 miles inland from North Beach lies the town of Dunkirk, Md., where Paul McBride lives on a heavily wooded dead-end street. McBride, a member of Council 7870, runs what fellow council members affectionately call the “Wood Sanctuary.” This two-acre lot is where the Knights’ wood program is headquartered and where the council keeps most of its wood supply and cutting equipment.
“It ended up being a place where we could get a good supply of wood,” said McBride. “I had the room, and the shed sits way in the backyard.”
About six years ago, the council had begun an outreach program to remove fallen trees from communities in and around North Beach. The initiative was a modest success, and Knight José A. Baca suggested going even further.
“It was well received, and then we said, ‘Hey, why don’t we expand it? Times are getting harder. People are going to be spending money on firewood when they should be spending money on food,’” said Baca.
So, in 2009, Baca approached a Ladies of Charity representative following morning Mass at St. Anthony of Padua Church. He explained that the council had firewood available and wanted to know if there were any food pantry clients who needed home heating assistance.
As it turned out, there were. That first year, three families requested firewood. More came forward the next year, and more the year after that. At present, Knights deliver wood to more than a dozen low-income households, distributing about 20 cords of wood per year, valued at approximately $4,000.
“Whenever the Knights tell us they’re ready to go, we put a sign up on our bulletin board that says ‘Firewood available. Inquire at the desk,’” said Maureen Hudson, coordinator of the Ladies of Charity Food Pantry.
The work, though, doesn’t stop there. Knights not only deliver the wood, but they unload and stack it as well. They also take into account a recipient’s storage space and the size of the logs needed. For instance, a family with a wood-burning stove will need bigger logs to keep the fire stoked, while an elderly couple will need smaller pieces that are easier to carry to the house.
“There’s enough people involved with various schedules that if there’s a specific need that has to be addressed right away, we can take care of it,” said Grand Knight Chuck Geisler.
FANNING THE FLAMES
According to Hudson, many who seek assistance from the Ladies of Charity Food Pantry are dealing with disabilities or medical problems; others have simply fallen on hard times. No matter the reason, it can be difficult to pay more than $200 for a cord of seasoned hardwood a stack measuring 4-by-4-by-8 feet on top of paying other utilities and buying groceries.
This is the experience of Shirley Miller, who lives in the shoreline community of Fairhaven, Md., in a beach cottage that was not intended for year-round use.
“I don’t have a furnace, so it’s the wood stove or freeze,” she said with an easy laugh.
Miller is on disability and works part-time, but she still finds it difficult to make ends meet, especially in the winter. She relies on the generosity of others to obtain fuel for her stove an uncertain situation if no one she knows has had a tree come down or if her father hasn’t acquired a surplus of wood. Even then, she usually has to hire someone to transport the wood in a pickup truck and cut it if the logs are too big.
Early on, Miller learned about the Knights’ wood program through Hudson. Since 2010, she has received several deliveries.
“It was really, really nice because [the Knights] brought it to me, so I didn’t have to pay somebody to go and pick it up,” Miller said. “They had already cut and split it, so I didn’t have to pay somebody to do it. And they even stacked it in the woodbin and got it ready for me to use!”
The firewood from the Knights has been a godsend for the times when Miller’s other resources have run low, and having a steady supply of fuel means that she can focus her finances elsewhere.
“It allows me to spend money on other areas, like paying bills on time,” she said. “If something goes wrong and I have to fix it, it gives me that little bit of extra money that I can fix something with, whether it’s the car or the refrigerator or the washing machine.”
It is recipients like Miller who have made the firewood program such a rewarding success for council members. Gathering, splitting and transporting wood has built teamwork among the Knights and strengthened their fraternal bond. Members not only volunteer their time, but their equipment as well: chainsaws, tarpaulins and fuel canisters. One Knight donated a wood splitter that is now a permanent fixture at McBride’s house; other members donate use of their own splitters or pickup trucks.
“This is something that’s not a lifetime commitment,” said Geisler. “If you have a Saturday available and we’re doing a wood project, you can certainly do it.”
Hudson added, “It’s not easy work, but they jump to it, and I’m just impressed with how efficient they are and how cheerful they are about it. It’s a real inspiration to me, and I’m sure to other people as well.”
A ROARING BLAZE
The arrival of spring on March 20 doesn’t necessarily mean that the need for firewood will end for the season. Will homeowners be keeping their thermostats on well into April? With the brutal chill over the past few months, it’s anyone’s guess. Shirley Miller is thinking about asking the Knights for more firewood if her supply runs out before the end of winter. And there’s always next fall to consider as well.
“They always ask me, ‘Did you get enough wood this year?’” said Miller. “They’ll start asking me in the fall. ‘Do you want us to start saving wood for you?’ It’s just a blessing to know that they remember me, that they’re thinking about me and that they put me on their list of people to call.”
McBride, for one, envisions a warm future for the program and is willing to let the Knights use his property for as long as it’s convenient to the program.
“It seems like every year there’s more and more people who need wood,” he said. “Last year it wasn’t that cold, so we didn’t give that many truckloads of wood, but this year we have. … I think that as electric bills go higher and people are unemployed, this program will continue.”
Meanwhile, recipients like Miller can’t thank the Knights enough for helping her keep warm throughout the winter.
“I think the Knights are a bunch of saints!” she said. “I really, really do! I just feel very blessed and honored that I’m a recipient of their kindness.”
PATRICK SCALISI is senior editor of Columbia magazine.