If it’s Tuesday, then there‘s a good chance the Toolmen are out.
The Tuesday Toolmen are an all-volunteer group of local retirees who are putting their skills to work on construction projects for senior citizens in need throughout Kalamazoo County.
Working with Senior Services, a nonprofit organization that offers food assistance, health care and other programs for senior citizens and the disabled, the Toolmen set out once a week to assist clients who’ve contacted Senior Services for help. The goal is to allow the elderly to stay in their own homes, and for some people that means they need a wheelchair ramp, or a “grab bar” to move around the bathroom. Senior Services figures out what the project is and orders the supplies, and the Toolmen do the work.
“People that are home-bound appreciate it the most,” says Scott Aldrich, one of the Toolmen. “It’s great to look them in the eye and know you’re able to help.”
Clair Branch, a hobbyist carpenter from Portage, founded the Tuesday Toolmen 20 years ago, after having a career in sales at the former Upjohn pharmaceutical company.
“I helped a friend (build) Habitat for Humanity houses,” he says. “I saw a pile of paper about an inch think — they were requests for help.”
Branch and three other volunteers did what they could to answer the calls for help. “We were there supposedly temporarily, but word got out and it spread,” he says.
At the time, the group could only undertake one project a week. Now there are 20 members of the organization, and most Tuesdays they split into three or four groups and head in different directions. Many projects can be completed in one day, although the Toolmen occasionally return on a Wednesday to wrap up.
By far, the Toolmen’s biggest projects are building wheelchair ramps. The Toolmen also do simpler tasks, such as changing light bulbs or replacing smoke alarm batteries. They’ll install window air conditioners and deadbolts. Contractors are called in for any project that requires meeting state construction codes.
“People often ask, ‘Is it going to be safer when (you’re) done?” says Dave Nadrasik of Kalamazoo, the fifth member to join the Tuesday Toolmen. “A lot of ladies like to come in and watch — they like to see what we’re doing.”
Many of the Toolmen’s projects involve making a home safer, whether it’s fixing leaky faucets or holes in the floor of a house’s front porch.
“We have gone in to replace a toilet and found the only thing holding up the bowl from falling through the floor was the plumbing,” Nadrasik says.
Nadrasik started working with the group in 2000. His wife suggested he join up with the Toolmen after he retired as a maintenance supervisor at Coca-Cola. He’s one of the few Toolmen who worked in maintenance and construction professionally. But Nadrasik says the work they do requires more dedication than craftsmanship.
“You pay attention to what the other guy can do, and pretty soon you’re just as good as the guy who’s been doing it for 20 years,” he says.
The Toolmen have developed a checklist of essentials to look for in every house, like working electricity and basic plumbing.
Brian Penny, manager of Senior Services’ Emergency Home Repair Program, says the Toolmen have been inundated with requests to build new wheelchair ramps. Homeowners ask Senior Services for aid, and, before sending the Toolmen out, Penny researches what the house is likely to need. Everything from lumber to screwdrivers is provided; the funding comes from donations and federal grants for community development.
As a result, Aldrich says, the group has put together enough ramps that it essentially has an instruction manual and members know the exact size of wood they’ll need to cut and the dimensions of the final product.
Branch says when they finished the longest ramp they had ever built — 96 feet — the woman who used it burst into tears when her caretaker rolled her down it for the first time. “She said, ‘This is the first time I’ve been out of the house in six months,’” he says.
The group is always open to new volunteers. Penny says a few women have joined over the years, but the current group is all men.
“We never run out of people that need help,” Branch says. “I’m looking forward to the day they don’t need us.”