People Power: Valley volunteers pay it forward

  • Becky Jones, a volunteer with the Cancer Connection, at the Cancer Connection Thrift Store in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Becky Jones, a volunteer with the Cancer Connection, at the Cancer Connection Thrift Store. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Becky Jones, a volunteer with the Cancer Connection, at the Cancer Connection Thrift Store. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Becky Jones, a volunteer with the Cancer Connection, at the Cancer Connection Thrift Store. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Becky Jones, a volunteer with the Cancer Connection, at the Cancer Connection Thrift Store. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Susan Martindell, a volunteer at Ryan Road school. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Susan Martindell, a volunteer at R. K. Finn Ryan Road School in Florence. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Susan Martindell, a volunteer at R. K. Finn Ryan Road School, works with Sabrina Kulwich, 6, on her reading skills. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Susan Martindell, a volunteer at R. K. Finn Ryan Road School, works with Sabrina Kulwich, 6, on her reading skills. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Volunteer Shirley Griffin is shown with a map of connected open space in the Pioneer Valley at the Kestrel Land Trust in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Volunteer Shirley Griffin at the Kestrel Land Trust in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Volunteer Shirley Griffin folds a map of connected open space in the Pioneer Valley at the Kestrel Land Trust. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Volunteer Shirley Griffin is shown with a map of connected open space in the Pioneer Valley at the Kestrel Land Trust. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Ruthy Woodring, of Florence, volunteers at the Bike Lab on Saturdays; she helps people learn more about basic bike maintenance and repairs. She is shown here at the Northampton lab. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Ruthy Woodring volunteers at Bike Lab on some Saturdays, where she helps people to learn more about basic bike maintenance and repairs for free. She is shown here at the Northampton lab. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Bike parts at the Bike Lab in Northampton. Photo by Shell Lin

  • Bikes at the Bike Lab. Photo by Shell Lin

Friday, December 22, 2017

Around Florence and Northampton, Ruthy Woodring is a familiar face — she’s the co-founder of Pedal People, a worker-owned and bicycle-based trash and hauling service that started in 2002. At work, Ruthy, who wears her blond hair in braids, and a helmet and a reflective safety vest, rides a self-styled dark green mountain bike with two white buckets installed, one at the front and one by the backseat, carrying a trailer loaded with around 300 pounds of trash, recycling and compost. On a bronze charm on the handlebar is printed “office, office, office.” “When I’m on my bike, I’m in my office,” she said. “This is my Pedal People office.”

But in her spare time, Ruthy has another passion: helping people fix their bikes. For free. She does this through an informal workshop called the Bike Lab. (Though the Bike Lab is advertised on the Pedal People’s website, it’s not part of their business.)

“We have this idea that time is money. I don’t buy that,” Ruthy said on a recent snowy Saturday after a session of the Bike Lab in the basement of her friend’s house. That friend is Paige Bridgens, a  gardener who lives in Northampton. Fifteen years ago, Ruthy turned her basement into a work station for her bike. Sitting by a rosemary plant in the kitchen upstairs, Ruthy mused for a moment. “If I have the freedom to choose how to spend my time, that’s the greatest gift in the world,” she said.

Ask around, and you’ll find many like-minded people in the Valley — amid piles of clothes at the Cancer Connection Thrift Shop in Northampton, in a first-grade classroom of R. K. Finn Ryan Road School in Florence, and in the natural conservation areas of Kestrel Land Trust in Amherst — who give their time and talents and get their unique payback.

“It’s very satisfying to be able to give people a hug when they have their beloved ones pass away,” said Becky Jones, a former chaplain at Northampton’s Cooley Dickinson Hospital who, for 17 years, has been volunteering for Cancer Connection. With its center located on Locust Street in Northampton, it is a nonprofit that offers free resources to help cancer patients and their families cope with the changes in their lives. A breast-cancer survivor herself, Becky is now president of the board of directors, booking therapy appointments for members, talking to people who are newly diagnosed, and helping at the thrift shop, which is located on South Street in Northampton. “Volunteering gives me a sense of purpose,” she said, sitting on the sofa in her house in downtown Northampton, “and because there’s no pay, I don’t have to live up to anybody’s expectation.”

Volunteering also gives a sense of purpose to Shirley Griffin. Since 2015, she has been helping out at the Kestrel Land Trust in Amherst, which works to conserve farmland, woodlands, wildlife habitat, water resources and scenic vistas in the heart of the Connecticut River Valley. She helped with outside work — clearing trails, cutting shrubs, weeding forest floors around Amherst and Pelham — before she was diagnosed with leukemia this past January. After six months of recovery, she recently returned to help with office work, and her contributions are as meaningful as ever.

“In America, the government is not going to take care of all the extras. If you want something to exist and work well, and it’s not a business that brings in a lot of money, then volunteers have to do that,” Shirley said at her home, a retrofitted, net-zero-energy house in downtown Amherst. “If you want something in your community — if you want music or dancing or land to walk on — volunteers are the ones to put it together.”

Over the past week, we spoke with four volunteers to find out why they do what they do.

Ruthy Woodring and Paige Bridgens, founders of the Bike Lab

Fifteen years ago, Ruthy Woodring and Paige Bridgens were neighbors in Northampton — Paige still lives in the same house, Ruthy has since moved to Florence. One day, Paige found Ruthy at home in her kitchen, a screwdriver in hand, using screws to turn her normal bike tire into a studded snow tire. Ruthy was working at her kitchen table, and Paige had a better idea. “You can work in my basement!” she said. “There’s a workbench and a space for tools.”

In Paige’s basement, which is lit by a couple of fluorescent bulbs and has peeling paint on the walls, Ruthy set up a table of her tools: headset wrenches, a crank puller, a bike stand, cone wrenches, a chain breaker, cable cutters ... But back in 2002, she didn’t use the space all that much — just for the occasional tune-up for her own bike — and it occurred to her maybe other cyclists could use her tools for their bikes. So, she asked Paige: “How about we invite other people over?” 

That’s how the Bike Lab was born. It’s kind of like NPR’s “Car Talk,” but for bikes, with free, casual workshops. “If you have questions about fixing flats, understanding gears, bike fit, brake adjustments, suspicious squeaks or creaks, or riding safely in traffic and in cold, we can come up with answers,” as Ruthy put it on the the Pedal People’s website. “If you have a bike, bring it. If you need a bike, we might have one you can fix up for yourself.”

Thanks to word of mouth, news of the Bike Lab quickly spread. Now, on any given Saturday, up to 10 people will show up. Some borrow the tools to work on their own bikes, some seek help with a flat tire or a broken derailleur, some donate bike parts. “People aren’t taught that they can fix things,” Ruthy said as she walked toward a row of bikes, all abandoned by their owners. “They would throw their bike away because it costs too much to pay the labor to get it fixed — even though it’s a totally good, functional bike.” She sometimes helps people fix bikes to sell at a cheap price.

Recently, visitors have come to learn how to best maintain their bikes in the winter. “Here’s a tip: Never leave a bike out all winter without a seat on it,” Ruthy said and laughed, gesturing to a bike with a rusted, broken frame. “We had multiple bikes that came here wet; they got rained on or snowed on. The water fills out the frame, and it cracks like a frozen pipe.”

These Saturdays have become an important part of the co-founders’ social lives. “During the Bike Lab, we’re not all just scraping on our bikes and screwing things on, but also talking to each other,” Paige said. “I often come away feeling stimulated.”

“My biggest goal of the Bike Lab is for people to have independent transportation,” Ruthy added. Growing up in rural Kentucky, as the youngest of eight kids, she took her bike everywhere. Many of the people who come to the Bike Lab can’t drive. “Maybe they’re under 16; maybe they’ve lost their license; maybe because of their immigration status they can’t get a license,” Ruthy said. “I have a friend who’s legally blind, but he can bike safely. ”

When no one comes, Ruthy just works on her bicycle, which was abandoned behind a bike shop eight years ago. On an average day working for Pedal People, she rides 15 to 20 miles around Northampton, and all of that wear and tear can take its toll on a bike. 

“I’ve changed everything on it,” she said and smiled. But there’s still plenty to work on: “I need to change my tires! I need to put on new ones, without cracks.”

Shirley Griffin, stewardship crew member and office volunteer at Kestrel Land Trust

When Shirley Griffin moved to downtown Amherst four years ago from Wisconsin, the Kestrel Land Trust down the street immediately piqued her interest. “I like being outdoors. I just have a small yard,” said Shirley, who is retired. She joined the Land Trust’s stewardship crew and started to maintain public lands by killing invasive plants, clearing and marking trails, posting boundaries and picking up trash. “In the morning, you can put on your play clothes and be physically active,” she said. 

For Shirley, who previously worked as a wetland consultant in New Hampshire and volunteered for the Nature Conservancy in Wisconsin, working on the land again felt natural — but she’s a conservationist at home as well. On a recent chilly afternoon, she sat in her living room, a fan blowing warm air nearby. “It’s a mini-split: air conditioner and heat pump in one,” she explained, “and it’s the only heating in the house.” She knocked on her unusually thick windowsill: “It’s all insulation.” Several years ago, Shirley did a deep-energy retrofit of the 1865 house, adding a foot of insulation in her roof and walls and installing a solar panel, so that now “I make more energy than I use, and I have no heating or electric bill,” she said proudly. “Every house should be like this!”

Shirley grew up playing in the woods in Haverhill, Mass. In 1970, when the Clean Air Act was passed and Earth Day was invented, she graduated with a biology degree from Wellesley College, with a focus on environmental studies. The day after graduation, she and the other environmental major in her class jumped into a car and drove to Idaho to visit local parks and the recreation department of Lewiston, where her friend lived. The next summer, they took a ferry to Alaska, where they camped and hiked. “I know, it was very cool,” Shirley said with a smile.

Shirley started volunteering with the Kestrel Land Trust in 2015, and continued until this past January, when she was diagnosed with leukemia. “I went to the doctor, and the next day, she called and said, ‘Pack a bag and go to the emergency room as fast as you can — have somebody drive you, because you’re just about out of blood,’ ” she recalled. Shirley stayed in Boston’s Massachsuetts General Hospital for three months, had bone marrow transplanted from her brother, and came back with “no muscles left,” she said. “I just slowly eased back into life. I would walk every day, and I finally got to the end of the street.” Then, in September, she walked back into the Land Trust building on North Pleasant Street. Instead of doing outdoor chores, she now works in the office, helping with data entry, folding maps and organizing binders. She expects to go back into the field next spring.

What prompted her to go back to the Land Trust were “still the same motivations,” she said. “I really believe in what they do. With population growth the way it’s going, if we don’t put aside land, it’s just not going to be there. It’ll just all be housing and businesses.” Once in Wisconsin, Shirley saw a beautiful waterfront property on Lake Michigan, featuring a vernal pool and many rare plants, come onto the market. “I was hoping that a land trust could save it and not have it developed into 10-house lots,” she recalled. “It really kills me to cut it all down and pave it for a stupid house.” Shirley and a group of local concerned residents tried to save it, but couldn’t.

“It surprises me that there are people who don’t know anything about the environment,” she lamented. “I’m sure that most of the people in Washington, D.C. don’t know anything about land and air and water … It’s pretty scary, because they’re the ones who make decisions about laws, and they vote for legislators.”

But Shirley remains positive. “I don’t stress much,” she said. “People die eventually, some sooner than others. But I’ve done just about everything I want to do, and I’m happy with the choices I’ve made.”

Susan Martindell,volunteer at R. K. Finn Ryan Road School

Five years ago, Susan Martindell saw an article in the Daily Hampshire Gazette about volunteering opportunities in Northampton, and one of them was at local public schools. She immediately applied. “I said Ryan Road specifically,” Susan recalled, sitting in an office at the school in Florence. “It’s a neighborhood school; I can walk here if I want to. And my children went here.”

“I said I want to work with first or second grade,” she added. After moving to the Valley in 1971, Susan worked as a substitute teacher, and then a full-time teacher, in Northampton and Easthampton public schools. She taught in the area for around 21 years, mostly working with fourth-graders. “I wasn’t good at teaching teenagers,” she whispered. “When you’re a teenager, you have other things you’d rather be doing than being in school.” 

But volunteering with first graders is another story. “The six-year-olds are adorable and cute. They appreciate school. They enjoy being in the classroom,” said Susan, who has four grandchildren. 

That’s why almost every Monday and Thursday morning for the past five years, Susan (the kids know her as Mrs. M) visits the classroom of Diana Ramsden (Mrs. Ramsden) to help teach reading. Sometimes, she works with individual students with a stack of “sight words,” which, she explained, are “words that children often run into in stories and have to know their meanings automatically without reference.” But usually, she helps one kid or a group of three read a “Just Right” book, “a book at their specific reading level that they are comfortable reading independently and successfully,” she said.

What she enjoys about teaching is simply “seeing the children go from struggling with reading to making good progress,” she added. “By the end of the school year, you can see that they learn more vocabulary and to read more fluently.” And being a volunteer is even more of a plus because she can “be happy that I’m retired and doing this part-time,” she said and laughed. “I never had volunteers when I was teaching. I would have loved to have a volunteer committed to help once in a while.” 


Becky Jones, president of theboard of directors for Cancer Connection 

When Becky Jones was invited by friends to be part of the planning team for Cancer Connection, she had no idea that she’d still be there 17 years later. “At the beginning, I just wanted to help,” she said. “But then I made connections with many other people and kept working there because of the friendship.” Another thing she didn’t expect was getting a diagnosis herself: Becky found out she had breast cancer in 1999, shortly before Cancer Connection was founded the next year.

“I was really grateful that they were there,” she said. In 2001, when Becky was a volunteer and workshop leader at the Connection, she joined the organization’s rowing team, which met on the river three afternoons a week for six weeks. “It was really hard, physically and mentally. I’m a backseat driver — I wanted to tell other people what they did wrong even though I did not know anything — but in the boat we were not allowed to talk,” she said and laughed, sitting on a sofa in her home in downtown Northampton. “But that was awesome. It made me feel I was in my body again.”

On the table, she had set out a plate of cookies and two cups of tea, with blue cotton towels by the side, and the living room soon smelled of apples and cinnamon. On her walls hang various paintings; one, an impressionistic nature scene, she first saw at Cooley Dickinson Hospital, where she used to work as a chaplain. “It was an amazing opportunity to be with people in their hard times,” Becky said. As much as she got out of her job, “There’s something about volunteering — every time I go, I choose to go there.”

“There’s a playfulness that can happen,” she continued. “For example, at the thrift shop, if I break something or if I’m late, we can joke and say, ‘So what are you gonna do? Cut my pay?’ ” She laughed and sipped her tea. “It’s satisfying to connect with somebody who walks in the door and to plow through donations and get them on the floor.”

In 2010, Becky was diagnosed with breast cancer a second time. “It was definitely a drag,” she recalled. “I can get afraid that something’s cancer, but I don’t live with daily worry about it.” At the time, she joined the Cancer Connection’s “Spirit of the Written Word” writing group and had massage, Reiki and reflexology services.

Now, in addition to volunteering, Becky also does private counseling and leads bereavement writing groups. “There’s part of me that likes to fix things for people, and there’s also part of me that’s just willing to sit with whatever’s there with people and not fix it,” she said. “But not run away scared, either.”