DRESDEN — Doris Swasey cultivates a sizable vegetable garden, sometimes mows the lot next door, which she doesn’t own, and keeps up the house her late husband built.

But at 81, Swasey finds herself outmatched by some tasks, like digging up overgrown rose bushes or repainting the peeling eaves on her house.

Swasey said her grandson helps her with outdoor work when he can, but he has his own home and three children. So when she received a notice from the town office that Hall-Dale High School was offering help for elderly or disabled residents, she signed up.

“I thought, ‘Gee, I’m not going to climb the ladder at age 81 to get that painting,’” she said. “I’ve been letting it go for quite a while.”

Five Hall-Dale senior girls and Spanish teacher Jennifer Rasmussen reported to Swasey’s home this morning to paint, prune and mow as part of Hall-Dale’s first school-wide Day of Caring.

“I think we did a really good thing,” said Erin Gamache, who lives in Farmingdale. “It felt really good, and it brought our homeroom closer.”

“It feels good to help people,” said Macy Hipkins, also of Farmingdale.

While Hall-Dale groups such as Jobs for Maine’s Graduates and Key Club participated in United Way’s Day of Caring last year, today was the first time all of the students in grades six through 12 took part.

It’s ordinary for Day of Caring projects to benefit organizations, like Kennebec Valley Humane Society or Hall-Dale Elementary School, where some of the Hall-Dale students volunteered today.

It’s less common for projects to benefit individuals.

The idea to help Dresden residents with yard work and chores started at the regional budget meeting for Regional School Unit 2 in May. RSU 2 is made up of Dresden, Farmingdale, Hallowell, Monmouth and Richmond.

“They were talking about the school budget, and a woman from Dresden stood up and said that she was very supportive of students, but if taxes went up — because she was elderly and on a fixed budget — the town might have to put a lien on her house,” said Lydia Leimbach, a technology coordinator at Hall-Dale. “We couldn’t help her on the money part of it, but we certainly could go down and do some work for residents that they might otherwise have to pay for.”

Leimbach was in charge of organizing the Day of Caring. Most of Hall-Dale’s community service projects have taken place in Hallowell or Farmingdale, but Leimbach said the school should help Dresden as well because the town has sent students to Hall-Dale for several years, even before they both became part of RSU 2.

After the meeting, Leimbach spoke with Phil Johnston, chairman of Dresden’s Board of Selectmen. The town office sent out notices to residents and had eight sign up for help, though the woman who’d spoken at the budget meeting was not among them.

Johnston said it was a great idea, and he hopes it will take on a life of its own.

“I think it’s wonderful, anytime that people can come face to face with different ways of life, different age groups, different genders,” he said. “When we can help each other, that’s a wonderful thing. We don’t do enough of it.”

At homes around Dresden today, Hall-Dale seniors raked leaves, moved firewood, trimmed bushes and washed windows and cars.

At Swasey’s house on River Road, Rasmussen did most of the painting because it involved climbing on a ladder. The students painted some of the trim they could reach from the ground, cut down small trees, pruned back rose bushes and mowed the large, sloping backyard.

Leimbach said she hoped students would learn that they have skills they can use to help others.

“I think a lot of kids think that they kind of have to cure cancer or be able to have a lot of money to throw at a problem to make a difference,” she said. “I hope what they learn from this is sometimes it just takes time and a little bit of energy and a willingness to do the work.”

That message seemed to sink in for the students at Swasey’s house. Rasmussen said they had decided that Hall-Dale should have a Day of Caring more than once a year, and not just when school district residents are struggling.

“I really believe that it shouldn’t just be when times are tough that we help our neighbors,” Rasmussen said.

Kyrie Johnson, of Farmingdale, said today was her first time mowing a lawn. She said it was hard pushing the mower up the hill and her allergies were flaring up, but it was worth it.

“I know that everything we did made a really big difference in Doris’s life,” Johnson said. “I just wish we had a little more time.”

The weathered wood of the eaves and trim was showing through the single coat of white paint that the volunteers had time to apply today, and they had no wood stain for the deck. They’re already planning to return on an upcoming weekend, on their own time, to finish the work.

Susan McMillan — 621-5645
smcmillan@mainetoday.com