Janet Nelson never expected to ask for assistance from Christmas in May, the annual Chaska event when volunteers spruce up houses and yards for residents in need. But recently she had seen a few mice in her mobile home, so she requested help finding and plugging whatever hole the rodents were crawling through.
Like a kid asking Santa for one small gift and waking up Christmas morning to an overflowing stocking, Nelson received far more than she’d requested — from gardening and painting to a new gutter and major appliances.
On a warm, sunny Saturday morning earlier in May, a team of volunteers showed up to work on her yard and deck.
“I didn’t sleep all night long, I was so excited,” said Nelson. “They’re so nice to me to do such wonderful work.”
Chaska has held Christmas in May for 23 years. Five homeowners who lack the physical or financial resources to make improvements themselves are selected each year to receive whatever help they need, such as painting, plumbing, carpentry, electrical work, hauling, cleaning, landscaping or appliance replacements. Chaska chips in city money, municipal departments provide services and local businesses donate or sell items at cost.
Last year, Kris Ewy, a single mother of two, got a new roof, furnace and air conditioner.
“It was overwhelming, what I received, so I’m still very grateful,” she said.
This year, Ewy returned to the program as a volunteer, along with about 150 others. Volunteers range from children — even the youngest can pick up sticks — to adults, some trained in construction or other skills. Many were students in Chaska-area schools, often including entire sports teams.
Chaska Mayor Mark Windschitl spent the morning visiting each site, accompanied by his daughter and granddaughter.
“I believe this [event] defines Chaska more than some of the things in the past define Chaska,” Windschitl said. He was referring to reports in April of racist actions by students in Eastern Carver County Schools, including Chaska High School. “Sometimes we focus on the bad things and forget about all the good things.”
One of the event organizers’ biggest challenges is getting residents to apply, said City Administrator Matt Podhradsky, president of the board of Chaska’s Christmas in May.
“I think some don’t view themselves as needing help,” said Podhradsky, who spent the day running out to get whatever supplies the work teams needed.
“Hey, any one of us in the community could be in a position where we need help.”
Neighbors help neighbors
Nelson said she never thought she could be a recipient. But, at age 75 and disabled with lupus, she’s just the kind of resident the program is intended to benefit.
In the weeks before this year’s event, the fire department checked all of Nelson’s smoke detectors. The electric department put energy-saving bulbs in all of her light fixtures — both standard features of the Christmas in May treatment. A volunteer stopped by to ask what repairs Nelson needed.
Nelson mentioned the mice.
Think bigger, the visitor urged.
Well, she had some loose boards on her deck. Oh, and the porch could use fresh paint. Come to think of it, the garage gutter was leaking — in cold weather, water would drip off and freeze, coating her walk with dangerously slippery ice.
How about yard work?
“Well, I always have yard work — everybody does,” Nelson said.
The visitor asked about the condition of Nelson’s appliances. Next thing she knew, Christmas in May folks were replacing her aging washer, dryer and air conditioner.
On the day of the event, a team of 16 volunteers gave Nelson’s home practically an HGTV-style fixer-upper treatment — that is, if an HGTV team were to include 10 high-school students who had stayed up late the night before attending prom.
“Two hours’ sleep was good for most of us — we’re teenagers,” Claire Larkin said cheerfully as she and her classmates, members of the soccer team at Chaska’s Southwest Christian School, went to work.
While others spread mulch on Nelson’s hosta garden and assembled a container for her garbage and recycling cans, Larkin crawled under the deck to work on some joists, encountering a couple of mice along the way.
“To me, it’s quintessential small-town neighbors helping neighbors,” said state Rep. Greg Boe as he watched volunteers build a new cedar frame for Nelson’s raspberry garden. Boe, a Chaska resident, is a Christmas in May veteran.
“Sometimes, you might have sore muscles the next day or a bit of a sunburn, but it’s just a satisfying experience.”
Luke Melchert, 80, Chaska’s city attorney for more than 50 years, has volunteered for Christmas in May each of its 23 years. He recalled one resident with mobility limitations whose house had just one bathroom — on the second floor.
“She had been crawling up and down the stairs on her hands and knees,” Melchert said.
The work crew installed a toilet in a closet on the main floor.
“She was so happy,” Melchert said. “But that’s what we do.”