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27 years and counting

Hundreds volunteer to repair homes

Volunteers from Serena High School clear overgrown brush and trees from a yard in Ottawa Saturday during the annual United Way of Eastern La Salle County Labor of Love program.
Volunteers from Serena High School clear overgrown brush and trees from a yard in Ottawa Saturday during the annual United Way of Eastern La Salle County Labor of Love program.

Despite rainy weather Saturday, the annual United Way of Eastern La Salle County Labor of Love program weathered the storms.

In its 27th year, the volunteer-based home improvement and maintenance effort tackled 27 homes of low-income, sick or disabled homeowners residing in La Salle County.

Ottawa and Seneca took center stage with a majority of the major projects, many of which were started before the one-day home repair “blitz” and will continue until work is completed.

Off the beaten path in Seneca, volunteers from First Federal Savings Bank, ONYX and Howard Roux Tree Service battled wet, muddy conditions to do extensive yard cleanup and other home repairs. Roof and gutter work was delayed due to the weather but will be completed when conditions are safe to do so.

The large team worked under guidance from house captain Jim Lacke, and assistant Ellie Rossiter.

“I’ve been doing this for a very long time ... years, and my son, Brian Lacke, who still participates, and is a house captain as well started when he was just 10 years old,” Jim Lacke said. “I do it because I feel fortunate for what I have so I like to give back,” he added.

As first-time recipients of the program, the homeowners expressed much appreciation for the services they only recently learned about through the Ottawa Friendship House/Friendship Village.

“This is just so great. When your roof leaks and you have no money, it’s so great that they come out and help for free,” one of the homeowners said.

His wife agreed, saying “We’re very thankful and so grateful. Because of health conditions, things got beyond our control but this will help get us back on track,” she said.

According to the couple, who has raised several foster children, the view of their garage and driveway was obstructed by overgrowth but the LOL team cleared it.

“I can actually see the cars parked in the driveway now,” the wife said with a smile.

Closer into town, an Exelon crew, headed by Mike Pearson and Joe Fiesel, performed yard cleanup, window, furnace and A/C repairs, installed new doors and other maintenance/repair projects. Exelon has been a major supporter of the LOL program for 16 years.

To date, Exelon's employees and volunteers have repaired 91 homes. The company has donated over $200,000 – including the $15,000 donated this year at the breakfast meeting held at Marquette Academy prior to work. Fiesel, who worked at the La Salle Station previously, but transferred to another location started donating his time 12 years ago, and despite his transfer, he remains an Ottawa resident and joins his former colleagues in the LOL effort.

“These are still my neighbors and I continue to help,” he said.

In Ottawa, the homeowner of a home built in the late 1800s received LOL help for a third time and said she is always impressed by the work and help offered to her.

“You always get even more than what you ask for and the quality of work is just great,” she said.

“The yard work they are doing is wonderful. I have a sun allergy and can’t get out there like I used to,” she explained.

As a former missionary, who lived and worked in Israel for a time, she was humbled by the “pay it forward” help she has received from United Way. “The people who come here are awesome,” she added.

And the word “awesome” is fitting since her home repairs were directed by Tim Aussem, as well as Chad Mahler, Mike White and a team from the Serena FFA organization.

As a newbie to the LOL event, Serena FFA member Elly Kuhn said she is glad to be able to help.

“”We are helping people in our own communities and that feels good,” she said

Another FFA member commented their team is helping the community “in a positive way.”

Back at LOL headquarters, Marquette Academy, kitchen helpers – who organize the breakfast and lunch for the hundreds of volunteers, was first-timer Nancy Prafcke. Prafcke learned of the event through a local newspaper and offered her services.

When asked if she was prepared for the massive crowd and kitchen “craziness,” she said “Oh, I’m used to crazy. I used to be a rest-stop coordinator for the Pumpkin Pie Bicycle Ride. I’ve seen it all,” she joked. Serena FFA has been another major supporter, having helped LOL for 18 years. The Serena school district recently implemented an honors recognition program for those who donate their time to United Way.

Shelli Ocepek and her husband, Gary, who also serves as a chairman, and Shelli’s staff, work tirelessly for months arranging Labor of Love. As Ocepek’s “love child,” she revels in the success and outpouring of support she sees each year.

“It was a day! Some projects were prohibited or postponed due to the rain, but they will get done. Several teams have told me they are returning to the houses to finish, with more than one telling me they have a full day of work left to do,” she said.

Labor of Love volunteers often work past the one day to ensure homeowners receive the work and repairs they are in need of.

Ocepek had nice things to say about the people who help make Labor of Love work each year.

“It is rewarding for all involved to witness firsthand how every homeowner, every home, is special! Projects are customized to the home and the needs of the residents, allowing Labor of Love volunteers to match their skills and available time to the work. The gratitude from the owners and the satisfaction of coming together as a community to improve the well being of others is what brings our volunteers back year after year. It is warm hearts, a lot of work, and a little magic that makes it successful,” Ocepek said.

For more information about Labor of Love, or any other United Way program, visit unitedwayelc.org.

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