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No Small Thing

Steve Charles—For the past four years of W.A.B.A.S.H. Days, I’ve scoured the list of projects and tried to find a “big one” to photograph and chronicle: The Evansville guys building a playground set at a family crisis shelter under the leadership of Thom Liffick ’73;  Herm Haffner ’77 and two shifts of Wabash students working on a house for Habitat for Humanity just up the road in Linden. Indianapolis alumni handing out food for Gleaner for those in need and cleaning up vehicles for the Second Helpings kitchen; Tim Craft ’00 and more than a dozen alums organizing, running, and referring the flag football weekend at Damar Services, restarting a tradition for Special Olympians across the state; Charlie Lopez ’05 in Greenfield starting a new project with the Hancock Hope House Homeless Shelter.
I love this day for many reasons. I get to see Wabash alumni in a new light. One of my favorite photos of the late Dr. Tom Topper I took while he was standing not in an operating room, but on top of the gym set he’d just helped complete. There’s that photo of Herm Haffner covered with sweat and grime, yanking roofing nails from the house he’s rehabbing, another of John Bridge ’72 handing out food to the homeless at St. Richard’s school

And it’s encouraging, in the middle of a busy semester, to see how much good can be done by a few caring people in just a few hours.

This year with a magazine deadline and Wabash Day activities converging, I had only a few hours to get away on Saturday and Sunday, so I thought I’d try a different angle—to see a couple of the “smaller” projects, and those led by younger alumni.

(See a photo album here.)

And I learned that there are no small projects when Little Giants are involved, even when just two or three come together.

First stop was Lafayette, where I met Matt McFarland, Lou Fenoglio ’81, and Michael Pugh ’00 as they collected food at the eastside Payless grocery store. The job: Hand out a flyer to customers as they enter the store, tell them about the Food Finders foodbank, and invite them to drop off an item of two in the Wabash Day/Food Finders cart. Simple enough, except that not every customer likes being jumped the minute they enter the store. Most are polite, some even enthusiastic. But others think you’ve got a coupon, and those folks can get cranky when they find out you’re asking for something from them instead; others act like your asking for money or serving a summons and run from you like you’ve got the H1N1. 
McFarland, a friend of Lafayette Wabash Day organizer Joe Trebley ’01, learned to read customers’ body language well enough to at least get a flyer in almost everyone’s hands. It was fun to watch him work, even better when someone he’d approached returned a few minutes later with a can or box of food.
And Matt’s not even an alumnus! An Ohio Northern grad, he was joining us because of his friendship with Joe and, as he says, there aren’t a lot of Ohio Northern gatherings in Lafayette.

Next was the West Lafayette payless, where Joe and Mary Trebley placed their Wabash rug and banners in the middle Purdue’s Homecoming celebration with customers flowing into store so frequently that the couple could barely greet each one and hand out the flyers. They were positioned at the front of the store in such a way that few could get past them, though, and their warm welcome drew in those who might have otherwise turned the other way.

Mary is a pharmacist at the CVS across the street and seemed to know half the customers who walked in, often ending the conversations with a hug. In less than two hours they had collected almost three full carts of groceries for the food bank, and more were pouring in as I left.

“You’ll notice that a lot of parents will have their kids drop off the bags,” Mary told me, seconds before a little girl approached with her own gift of food items. Parents seemed to use the occasion to teach their children about giving, caring about others. And Mary’s warm “thank you” to each of the kids let them know they were really helping out. For those kids and their parents, it’s an interesting introduction to Wabash College!

Sunday I drove to Bloomington and the Middle Way House, whose mission is ‘to end violence, both structural and interpersonal, in the lives of women and children.” There I met Parker Collins ’05, who had driven from Indy to lead the project, along with his dad, Bloomington county attorney Dave Schilling ’82.

"Anyone else here?” I asked as I took my camera out of the case.
"If you join us, that makes three," Dave said, though soon Todd Rowland ’85 and his son,  Price, rode up on their tandem bike and lent a hand.

After I took my photos, I joined the crew, making this the first year I actually get to work on one of these things.

Middle House hasn’t asked for much—just some hedge trimming, weeding, and yard cleanup. Fairly mindless tasks that allow for some enjoyable conversation with Todd and Dave, and give me time to think about the place where we’re working.

Middle House offers help, housing, and hope to victims of sexual assault and domestic abuse. Lifesaving, heartbreaking, and heartening work is done in this old house off downtown Bloomington, and we’re just five guys cleaning up the yard. Maybe it sends some kind of message, five guys in Wabash sweatshirts crawling on our hands and knees, pulling up weeds around a house where women who have been raped and kids who have been beaten up, usually by men, come for shelter and healing, but doing yard work feels like a drop in the bucket. Maybe outside the bucket.

Yet three times women coming in or out of the house stop to thank me. The first time I respond “you’re welcome” but pass it off for polite small talk, the second time I take it a little deeper, regardless of how small I feel, and the third time I thank the women for their work, then realize I have no idea if I’m talking to administrators, counselors, or victims, if I’m thanking them for the work of running this place, comforting others, or healing.

It’s a small thing, I know, but listening to the Colts wrap-up show on the radio on the drive back to Bloomington Sunday afternoon, I’m grateful for the chance to finally do something on Wabash Day besides taking pictures. I’m grateful for Jon Pactor envisioning this day years ago, and for the now hundreds of Wabash men, families, and friends who participate. I look forward to getting back to the office and reading about all the good things that have been done on this day, “spreading the fame,” living the mission of this place.

And I’m glad my first one was a “small” project. I come from a "small&q
uot; school where each member of the community and each teachable moment matters; where we call ourselves Little Giants. Which may be a good way to describe each of these projects.

In photos: Joe and Mary Trebley and two of the shopping carts they filled with donations for Food Finders in West Lafayette; Matt McFarland, Mike Pugh, and Lou Fenoglio chat while manning the Food Finders station in Lafayette; Dave Schilling trims up Middle House; Todd Rowland and son, Price, join the cleanup in Bloomington.