Wayland resident and young mother Pam Washek found herself sidelined by cancer in 2002, and friends stepped in to fill the gap by pitching in with day-to-day tasks.
When her disease went into remission, Washek made it her mission to provide similar help to others, founding the Wayland Angels in 2003. The name has since been changed to Neighbor Brigade, and 30 chapters operate across the state.
While Washek lost her battle to cancer recently, her vision for neighbors helping neighbors continues.
In the south suburbs, Neighbor Brigade chapters are thriving in Easton, East Bridgewater, West Bridgewater, and Bridgewater. A fledgling chapter in Braintree, just a few months old, is already hard at work, and Mansfield and Milton chapters should soon be up and running.
Each chapter is community-based and comprises a network of volunteers, who are notified by e-mail when help is needed. They can sign up for a variety of tasks, from making meals and doing light housekeeping to providing rides to medical appointments and even walking the family dog.
“It’s one of those things, when something happens, people want to rally around and do what they can,” said Bridgewater chapter leader Kim Riley. “Neighbor Brigade does this so they don’t get 14,000 lasagnas all in one week and then nothing. This is an organized way to help, and it was easy to establish. People just jumped right in.”
Braintree resident Alison MacDonald read about Washek’s brigade effort in People magazine last September. Since the town had no chapter, MacDonald decided to start one.
“My husband and I have a 2-year-old daughter and no family in the area,” she said. “If something happened to either of us, we don’t have anyone who would be there to help.”
It took MacDonald about two months to round up the 25 volunteers needed to get underway, but since the word got out, her list has doubled.
Among those the Braintree brigade has helped is an elderly man whose backyard had become overgrown and cluttered. “We found out about him from the mayor’s office,” MacDonald said. “I was afraid people would be too busy because of the holidays, but they made the time. He thought it was a godsend to have something like this.”
West Bridgewater residents Doug and Patty Oakley have been on the receiving end of their town’s Neighbor Brigade. Doug was diagnosed four years ago with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The illness’s progression was initially slow but has lately picked up, leaving Doug in a wheelchair and without the use of his arms.
When chapter leader Joanne Hall heard about Doug, she offered the brigade’s help. Volunteers supply a weekly meal and sometimes keep Doug company when Patty, who is the local school superintendent, has to attend a night meeting.
“Doug has had some great conversations with people who have come to sit with him,” Patty said. “One person had a relative with ALS, and Doug provided information about Compassionate Care ALS. He’s a member of their board of directors.”
Hall established the West Bridgewater chapter two years ago. “I called my friends, who are a good bunch of people, and posted fliers in the school,” Hall said. “Now we have over 100 volunteers. We do a lot of meals, rides, and errands.”
But she remembers her chapter’s first effort well, helping a young mother diagnosed with late-stage cancer. “We got very close,” Hall said. “It’s really difficult sometimes, but this stuff happens. You can close your eyes, or help out.”
Good friends Nancy Andrie and Diane Tremblay lead the Easton chapter. While help is generally limited to the town, the chapter has provided some meals to a Brockton woman, responsible for a family of five and recovering from major surgery.
“We felt it was the right thing to do, and Brockton and Easton are right next to each other,” Andrie said.
For Andrie, volunteering with the brigade has been gratifying. “I’ll be doing this forever,” she said. “My goal is to keep the Easton chapter going and spread the word to other places.”
Since Washek’s death in December, about a half-dozen new chapters have begun to organize.
“Pam started something that has really resonated with people,” wrote Sue Parente, a member of the board of directors, in an e-mail. “With her loss, there has been an amazing groundswell of support to keep Neighbor Brigade charging ahead. It’s truly heartening to see.”
Anyone wishing to start a chapter or contact one for help can visit the Neighbor Brigade’s website at www.neighborbrigade.org.
There are chapters in Arlington, Ashland, Bedford, Billerica, Braintree, Bridgewater, Concord/Carlisle, East Bridgewater, Easton, Framingham, Franklin, Holden, Holliston, Lexington, Medfield, Medway, Mendon, Natick, Needham, Norfolk, North Attleborough, Northborough/Southborough, Stow, Wayland, Wellesley, West Bridgewater, West Roxbury, Weston, Woburn, and Wrentham.
In addition to Mansfield and Milton, new chapters are also organizing in Lynnfield, Northbridge, and Dover, N.H.