By Joe Whalen
The plumbing in the family home of Big Sandy resident Betty Allison had been clogged since August. Dishwater took all night to drain from the kitchen sink and the garbage disposal had rotted away. Countless hours and dollars had been spent by Allison, 76, in an effort to fix the problems herself.
The yellow house on First Avenue, which sits across from the high school and has been occupied by her family since 1933, means a great deal to Allison and her mother, Alice Green, 95, a resident of the nursing home in Big Sandy Medical Center. Allison, who spends every afternoon at the nursing home, worried that the disrepair might alarm her mother.
Desperate to solve the dilemma, Allison was ready to call a professional plumber three weeks ago when her next-door neighbor, Jodi Thornton, told her about Make A Difference Day, a nationwide effort on Oct. 27 geared around volunteers improving communities by helping neighbors in need.
Allison signed up for assistance and, about two week later, saw two months' worth of plumbing problems disappear in less than two hours.
As a result of an ad for the 11th annual Make a Difference Day spotted in a newspaper by Brian Johnsrud, 17, a senior at Big Sandy High School, the homes and lives of Allison and many of her neighbors improved overnight. Johnsrud, a National Honor Society member who possesses a healthy strain of volunteerism, called a national hotline, learned about the collective effort held on the fourth Saturday of each October and quickly developed a plan. He enlisted the aid of 65 of the high school's 79 students, local Girl Scout and Boy Scout members, businesses in Big Sandy and Havre, even the plumbing expertise of his father, Steve Johnsrud, who lives in Kalispell.
With donated cleaning and home repair supplies, the brigade of 75 volunteers spread a fresh veneer across the face of Big Sandy. Yards became free of leaves, buildings received new coats of paint, furniture in homes shed films of dust and Allison's drainage problems met their match when Steve Johnsrud arrived on the scene.
"It was wonderful. Something like plumbing is so frustrating when water doesn't drain," Allison said. "Brian's father spent a lot of time fixing the drain, and I really appreciate it."
Muriel Silvan, 74, delighted in seeing local youths tend to the needs of her home on Third Avenue. A group of Girl Scouts vacuumed and dusted the interior while high school students cleaned her gutters, caulked her windows and tidied her garden.
"I just can't run the vacuum anymore, I can't clean the garden the way I used to, and I'm certainly not going to get on the roof to clean the gutters or climb the ladder to do the windows," Silvan said, adding, "We could see people working all over town. They did a paint job on a building downtown, and they also painted the playground equipment at the elementary school. There were lots of busy people. It was great."
Silvan reciprocated by going to the senior citizens center and helping the Girl Scouts make crafts and three different types of party favors that were delivered to elderly residents and patients in the hospital.
"They were short of some of the paints that they needed, so I ran home and got some of my paints and took them down there."
Lillian Odziemski, 78, recently had back and leg surgery and needed maintenance done to her house on Jefferson Street. Volunteers transferred rainwater from two barrels to her flower beds, raked leaves, replaced the battery in a smoke detector, reset a wall clock and cleaned the filter in the home's furnace.
"They sat and talked to me for a while, and I thought that was nice, too," Odziemski said. "They really made a difference, so I wrote a note in the paper thanking them and giving them credit, which they really had coming. It just made me feel so good, and so relieved. I come from Cleveland, Ohio, originally, and this is a really nice town to grow old in. I would like to give credit to this town and its people. They're wonderful."
Between morning and afternoon projects, the volunteers feasted on a brunch at the fire hall arranged and served by Debbie Moes, a lunchroom employee at S.E. Miley Elementary School. The day culminated with a dinner and a raffle in the cafeteria at S.E. Miley overseen by Moes and attended by a group of more than 100 activists and beneficiaries. Food and prizes were donated by businesses in Havre, like Albertson's, Herberger's, Creative Leisure, Pizza Hut, McDonald's and Ben Franklin Crafts. Paint supplies for major projects were donated by United Building Centers and Barkus Home Center.
"The businesses just gave everything they could," Brian Johnsrud said. "When they heard that we were helping people, they jumped at the opportunity. It was pretty much the businesses that got the day going. They were the fuel of the day."
A portion of the funds donated for Make A Difference Day gave rise to an essay contest entered by about 15 high school students. With drug awareness and prevention as its theme and proceeds benefiting DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), an essay written by Big Sandy senior Candi O'Neal took first place. But O'Neal, also a National Honor Society member, seemed to find the most satisfaction in helping paint playground equipment at S.E. Miley.
"I was talking with my friends, and we were saying how every time we go past the playground, we'll think, That's something we helped contribute to, and it's something the grade-schoolers will see and appreciate.'"
A clothing and food drive set up by Brian Johnsrud resulted in 20 bags of clothes and 20 cans of food finding their way to the Salvation Army. An honor roll student who carries a 98 percent academic average, Johnsrud returned from a Lutheran Bible Camp mission to Seattle in July with a renewed spirit of volunteerism after helping serve food in a soup kitchen. A few days later, he saw the ad for Make A Difference Day.
"I was kind of fired up about volunteering, so I brainstormed ideas and came up with a plan," Brian Johnsrud said. "The next day I went to Havre to see if the businesses would want to support our efforts."
Frances Ostrom, 72, said she greatly appreciated the work performed on her house by volunteers.
"They cleaned my gutters, raked my leaves, covered my air conditioner and painted the deck," Ostrom said. "It's just wonderful that the kids help other people. I think it was a wonderful idea, and I hope they continue it every year."