Community Voices - Jim and Anne Helm

Anne Helm GardenJim Helm is a Professor Emeritus of Classics at Oberlin College, and an active member of the Kendal at Oberlin community. Jim is chair of the Wood-shop Committee, and currently the Vice-President of the Kendal at Oberlin Residents Association.

Anne Helm is trained and certified as a Master Gardener in the state of Ohio. Anne volunteers at places such as Oberlin Community Services, and has volunteered in the past with teenage parents and their children at Wilkes Villa, a low-income housing development in Elyria. In addition, she maintains 3 of her own gardens and 6 communal gardens around Kendal at Oberlin.

Q: How would you describe the Oberlin community?

Jim Helm (JH): Diversity and history, and I think environmentalism in recent years has played a pretty important role, and Oberlin is progressive in all of these issues, and the whole question of recognizing alternative sexualities is also in there somewhere.

Anne Helm (AH): The kind of rural small town and yet diversity of Oberlin, and the basic values that are common to many people in Oberlin, including that green piece. But "Learning and Labor," and "think one person can change the world."

Q: We at the Oberlin Project describe "sustainability" as actions that promote economic, social and environmental well-being of a community. What does sustainability mean to you?

AH: To me I guess it's that we leave the earth with as many resources here as when we arrived, but I don't think we're doing it.

JH: One of the things my father used to say, back way before the environmental movement, was: you ought to leave a place cleaner than when you found it, and I think that can be generalized to other aspects of the environment — things should be better when you came.

Q: Could you talk a little bit about what you are involved in, in terms of sustainability? In particular, would you be willing to talk about the project you are involved in with Habitat for Humanity?

JH: Well. One day I was in the neighborhood of our facilities offices, and they had a dumpster out there, and there was a kitchen cabinet in it. Well, that attracted my attention, and I went and examined it; it looked like it was perfectly good. So I hauled it out and took it —

AH: Dumpster diver!

JH: ....someplace where I could store it for the time being, and then I asked, I said, "what's going on here?" and they said, "Well, you know, we're renovating the original cottages, we're expanding them, we're updating them, and as part of that we're taking out the old kitchen cabinets and we're saving them, but we've run out of storage space so we don't know what to do with them." I said, "I know what to do with them." So, I asked if it would be possible for me to arrange for the Habitat [for Humanity] ReStore to pick them up. I don't know if you know about the ReStore, but they've started this store in Lorain where they sell used construction material sand household goods, and when they receive donations, they use them in Habitat construction if they can, otherwise it goes to the store and they sell it, and the profits from that help support the Habitat program. So I called up and I asked whether they'd be interested, and they said "sure," so I got a group together in the wood-shop and I said, "let's see if we can take stuff out of the cottages that are not gonna be reused and get them to Habitat." So we organized a number of work sessions. The heavy stuff the facilities department here took care of so they for the most part took out the cabinets, and we took out electrical outlets and faceplates and air conditioning vents and shelving and anything that was screwed down that we could take out, and all of that was being replaced.

So the upshot of it is, since October of 2013 when I started, we have sent 20 truckloads of materials up to the ReStore, the last one was this Tuesday, and I was just curious as to what that was worth. So I went to the store one day and started jotting down the prices that they were asking for what they were selling, and I put that into a spreadsheet and started multiplying the values times the number of items that we sent, and it now totaled about $26,000. And that's just the used value, which is about a third or a fourth of what it would cost if you bought new, but some of the materials are just in good condition — they're not new — but even the stuff that's not new is in good condition.

Usually they send a truck with two guys down and I've gotten to know the guys and we work together pretty well. So that project keeps stuff out of the dump, it repurposes it, it makes things available to people at low cost, it provides a job for the guys that pick it up, it provides a job for the people that sell it, it provides income for habitat, so all of those I think are positive results of what started off as a simple project. Plus, it keeps me off the street!

Q: Anything else?

JH: Well, I'm chair of the wood-shop committee, and one of the things that the wood-shop people do, in addition to helping remove things from the cottages, is they repair items for residents, so a lot of these are things that otherwise would be thrown out.

AH: Jim repairs electrical appliances.

JH: Well, a lot of what I do is lamps. I repaired 2 lamps yesterday.

AH: I wondered why you hadn't come home!

JH: The most common problem is the switch has gone bad, and it takes 10 minutes to change out a switch, and we actually charge for our time, of 12 dollars an hour, and materials, so the average cost of a new switch is like $3 for a switch and a quarter of an hour's work, which is our minimum, so $6, which is enough for people to say "oh yeah, it's worth it." If you take it to a professional it'd cost a lot more than that and they'd say, "It's cheaper to buy a new one." So that's another way of keeping stuff out of the landfill — just repurposing, or reusing things.

When we had the renovations of our, what we call, "community spaces," that's the wood-shop, the creative arts room, the horticulture room and the hobby room, they were doing a lot of renovation, again to upgrade facilities, and I said, "Look: we've got all of these cabinets, they we taken out, we can reuse those in the community spaces." So we've used quite a few in wood-shop, creative arts and horticulture.

AH: Otherwise all new would have been purchased.

JH: I must say, I'm so happy with the results for the wood-shop because we had a lot more cabinets that we otherwise wouldn't have had, and the place is so well organized that people are complaining, "This doesn't look like a wood-shop anymore!"

Q: Do you have a message that you would like to give to the Oberlin community regarding sustainability?

JH: Yeah, I've got a message that we got from our daughter in law, because I had been beating up on her about turning out lights —

AH: She leaves lights on while she's gone to work. Overnight, down in the kitchen. It was really hard for us to hold our tongues, and we didn't totally.

JH: So one day she said, "I saw this sign. It says, 'there's no such place as away.' If you throw something away, it has to go somewhere, right? So I've been using that in the wood-shop, and the guys have gotten tired of hearing it!

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