Settled in new Mechanicsville office, Christmas in April gears up

March 27, 2013

Next month, about 1,500 volunteers are prepared to climb ladders, bang hammers and dip paintbrushes to serve St. Mary’s County residents whose homes need repair.

Christmas in April St. Mary’s has been organizing the efforts to take on anything from roofing to flower planting for about 20 homeowners April 27.

“I’m blessed. Anything I need, I have somebody I can call,” said Darene Kleinsorgen, the new executive director of Christmas in April St. Mary’s.

Kleinsorgen started with Christmas in April 23 years ago, serving breakfasts and lunches at houses being renovated. She has also served on the board of directors, as a secretary and as a director’s assistant.

In those years, she has seen the number of volunteers increase from 500 to about 1,500, she said. They used to provide danishes and sandwiches to workers. Now, church groups and businesses get together to provide meals that sometimes look like a Thanksgiving spread.

Kleinsorgen said she is grateful for the new, donated office space at 28231 Three Notch Rd. in Mechanicsville. It makes it easier for the group to have meetings with the board and the volunteers and to organize fundraising and repair efforts.

The group used to meet after hours at Burch Oil.

“They were good to us,” said Howard Thompson, board president. “But it’s nice to have office and meeting space of our own.”

He has been busy, working with Kleinsorgen to match up the homeowners’ needs and the volunteers’ skills, and to give the house captains their lists of what they need to accomplish that one day next month.

It’s a hit-or-miss relationship, Thompson said. “If I miss it, Darene hits it,” he said, laughing.

“This program is about neighbors helping neighbors,” Thompson said. “There’s people right next door to you who sometimes you don’t know are in need.”

Thompson, who also has worked 23 years with Christmas in April, said the group has repaired more than 600 houses in the county. He estimates that they’ve received more than $5 million in donated materials.

Thompson, an electrician, now works in hospitality. His background and his passion keep him going.

“I’m a big piece o’ puddin’,” Thompson said. “I can cry.”

He recalled times when he went to homes and saw older residents come out and say, “My God, I don’t know what I would have done without y’all.”

“You don’t forget these people after you leave projects,” Thompson said.

The work the volunteers do makes it easier for the homeowners, many of whom are elderly, to do basic upkeep.

“For a lot of these people, it didn’t used to be hard for them to keep it up while they were working,” he said. “When you can help them to have a house that shines, it really changes their outlook on life.”

Mary Holley of Hollywood lives in what used to be an old schoolhouse.

“They’ve been here to help me twice now,” she said. Volunteers installed new windows, painted the house and provided a washer and dryer — “so I don’t have to go up and down the stairs,” she said — and cleaned up her back yard.

“They do an excellent job,” she said.

Thompson remembers that project. Holley lives in his area. The team also helped repair water damage and replace flooring.

“Mr. and Mrs. Holley are some of the hardest-working people you’d ever meet,” Thompson said. Mary Holley’s husband, Louis, had a trash-collection business in Hollywood, Thompson said.

“We did a lot of work that really made it more healthy for them and better for them to get around,” Thompson said.

After years of stocking the warehouse, studying Census data about residents in need and reaching out to homeowners and volunteers, Christmas in April has become like family.

“It’s helping people keep their homes,” Thompson said.

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