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Volunteer handyman helps Blandford rebuild after vandalism | Community Spirit

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Volunteer handyman helps Blandford rebuild after vandalism
Volunteer handyman helps Blandford rebuild after vandalism

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (Blandford Nature Center)--- Volunteers are usually front-and-center at Blandford. You see them leading school tours, clearing trails, removing invasive plants, caring for animals, and greeting visitors during special events like the Sugarbush.

But other volunteers work behind the scenes. One of the Blandford Nature Center's key unsung heroes is Joe Schmidt.

Joe is Blandford’s jack-of-all-trades, do-it-yourself super volunteer handyman. Without fanfare, the 72-year-old retiree spends one to two full days a week at Blandford tackling an amazing variety of complex repairs and renovations that are easy to overlook. Maintenance staff member Martin Ferrone says Joe is the “muscle and brains” behind many recent renovation projects.

"We simply convey project needs and Joe quickly turns to skilled solutions. Joe can fix anything right on the spot, and wham! You’re back in business,” Martin says.

A long career starting as a machinist mate in the Navy and later a contractor/builder in Steelcase’s Wood Division taught Joe an impressive array of useful skills, from plumbing and welding to electrical work and carpentry. Along the way, Joe developed a keen interest in birds. He joined the Audubon Society and about five years ago, he was drawn to Blandford for its mission. Although Joe has built thousands of birdhouses, Blandford has also benefited from many of Joe’s other projects, from digging in the mud to fine woodwork.

Last July, when vandals damaged the floating dock at the frog pond, Blandford faced a burdensome repair bill. Bent and broken support posts needed to be replaced before winter ice added to the damage. That's when Blandford Volunteer Coordinator Jessie Schulte says Joe stepped up and performed a miracle. Schulte says the organization had received quotes nearing $2,000 to repair the damage, but only had received a few hundred dollars in donations. Joe found used parts and volunteered his time, completing the projects at a cost of pennies on the dollar.

Martin is always glad to see Joe’s van pull up.

“It’s a rolling hardware store—a real grab-bag of helpful spare parts. And, of course, Joe knows what to do with all those parts,” he says.

Joe also gave new life to Blandford’s dilapidated garage.

“We were facing teardown and a replacement cost of more than $20,000,” says Martin. “But Joe added supports, fixed the roof and replaced rotted siding—all for less than a grand.”

Today the garage is a dry and serviceable work area that’s always filled with a constant rotation of projects that help Blandford continue to educate, engage and empower our community to become stewards of the natural world that sustains us.

The list of “Schmidt-built” projects is long. He installed a sump pump under the log cabin, added footings to the historic barn, rewired the workshop and the log cabin, remodeled the wildlife center, fixed the welding equipment, and created a resting platform for the resident bobcat. He also made sign frames for the meadow and predator guards for wood duck boxes, he fabricated ironwork for Blandford’s entrance gate, and he got all the irrigation needs addressed in the farm greenhouse.

Annoesjka Steinman, president of Blandford, is always impressed with Joe’s many contributions and grateful for his volunteer service.

“We know our donors always prefer us to focus our dollars on programming over repairs and maintenance. With Joe’s donations of time and talent, we are better able to do that. He does everything so skillfully and cheerfully!” She says.

Not surprisingly, Joe was Blandford’s 2011 Volunteer of the Year.  As Joe Schmidt’s contributions become legend at Blandford, one question remains unanswered: What part of Blandford hasn’t been helped by Joe?

(Written by Marty Arnold, dedicated volunteer from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Marty helps with writing/securing grants and donated wildflower seeds).