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"Volunteers On Wheels" Donates Labor At Every Stop

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Tiffany Eckert
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There’s a new non-profit in town-- but by design-- it won’t stick around.  Volunteers on Wheels is made up of people who travel from place to place in two brightly painted school buses. They find volunteer projects in every town they visit. As KLCC’s Tiffany Eckert reports, this mobile non-profit has already logged 2,000 collective hours helping out in and around Eugene.

Marti Stevens Byers had big dreams of turning an old Fern Ridge elementary school campus into a community center and theater. But transforming a gymnasium into a theatrical playhouse takes a lot of heavy lifting. Something Byers and other board members found physically impossible. Then, Volunteers on Wheels rolled up.

(sound of bus tires)

Byers: “When I say God Send, it’s not hyperbole. The things that they have done here: Picking up this heavy stuff as a group and going up those 16 foot ladders is something we are simply no longer capable of doing. And it means that we can actually get this theater up and running.”

Alabama native Steven Boutwell is project director for Volunteers on Wheels. He says the opportunity to help at Applegate Regional Theater was fitting.

Boutwell: “So you have community, you have art and you have helping elderly people. It’s like doing three jobs at once.”

The idea for Volunteers on Wheels came to Boutwell a couple years ago while he was living on the road.

Boutwell: “I realized while I was homeless helping other people out helps you out. If I would go volunteer at an animal shelter I could get dog food for my dog. If I needed something fresh to eat, go volunteer at a Food Bank.”

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Credit Tiffany Eckert
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Marti stevens Byers surrounded by Volunteers on Wheels at Applegate Regional Theater. (left to right, Mariah Bruce, Maia Estecahandy, Steven Boutwell, Marti and Natalie Thamert)

Boutwell pitched his idea on social media. It was a surprise how quickly people responded--from around the country and overseas.

30-year old Maia Estecahandy is from Basque Country in the south of France. How did she hear about Volunteers on Wheels?

Estecahandy: “Uh, on Facebook.”

Two weeks ago, the group picked up Estecahandy at the airport. She traveled here to do this: “voluntourism.”

Estecahandy: “Uh, yeh! At least for a few months. I have a six month VISA for staying in the U.S.”

From the wings, theater director Marti Byers proves these volunteers have a variety of talents.

Marti Byers: “Maia will you come play something on this piano, please?” (piano music plays.)

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Credit Tiffany Eckert
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Maia Estecahandy plays a donated piano at Applegate Regional Theater where she is volunteering.

19-year old Natalie Thamert joins other members to work on theater seats. After finishing high school in Seattle, she says she wants to take this time “learning and living.”

Thamert: “I’d like to think of it like a gap year kind of thing but who knows where it will take me?”

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Credit Tiffany Eckert
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Vaughn Estilette has been with Volunteers on Wheels since February 4. He's originally from Tampa Bay.

Estilette: “It’s really fulfilling doing something that is bigger than yourself.”

That’s Vaughn Estilette. He’s 26 and from Tampa Bay. Estilette joined Volunteers on Wheels in early February.

Estilette:“It definitely feels like living, comparative to certain other lifestyles. It’s always new every day. It’s always exciting.”

After the winter ice storm, Estilette says they cleared logs at Cascades Raptor Center and helped out with animal rescue groups.  In the region, they’ve volunteered at 20 non-profits including Habitat for Humanity. Volunteer Coordinator Amanda Adams.

Adams:13 “During the time that they were here with us, we completed our 55th home in Eugene. As well, they helped on our home repair project, helping to repair homes for seniors, veterans and people with disabilities in the community.”

(sound of bus doors opening)

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Credit Tiffany Eckert
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Volunteers on Wheels on stage at Applegate Regional Theater where they have been donating labor.

Reporter: “So Steven, why don’t you describe where we are?”|

Boutwell: “We are on a painted school bus, a 1971 Ford.”

Reporter: “And this serves as kitchen and bedrooms right?”

Boutwell: “Yeah, we have a person that sleeps on this couch, this couch, and we have two bunkbeds back there and the other bus we have four bunkbeds.”

Steven Boutwell says they picked apples on Washington farms to raise money for their first bus. The second was donated by a California businessman who made a deal with the crew.

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Credit Tiffany Eckert
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Volunteers on Wheels travel in two buses. The number of people (and pets) working on projects changes as members join or move on.

Boutwell: “If we agreed not to park in front of his business between the hours of 9 to 5, Monday through Friday. And that day, he came and handed us the keys to a bus.”

No money changes hands for the labor and service from Volunteers on Wheels. But Boutwell says they could not keep going without donations for clothes, gas money, bus tires…

Next stop, Coos Bay. Then on to California.

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Credit Tiffany Eckert
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Volunteers on Wheels gives time and labor in every town they visit. And they travel in this 1971 Ford bus.

Tiffany joined the KLCC News team in 2007. She studied journalism at the University of Missouri-Columbia and has worked in a variety of media including television and daily print news. For KLCC, Tiffany reports on health care, social justice and local/regional news. She has won awards from Oregon Associated Press, PRNDI, and Education Writers Association.
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