Full of Heart
Mending gaps in Chelsea's safety net
by Anita LeBlanc
A red quilted heart hangs in the bay window of the home on South East Street in downtown Chelsea. Another decorative heart is near the front door. Behind the door is the headquarters of Nancy Harris’s unique gleaner crusade.
Harris collects surplus household goods, furniture, and clothing. She distributes these items to the homeless, returning vets, shut-ins, single mothers, and others in need through her nonprofit, nondenominational charity, Hearts Community Service.
The crowded interior of the old house testifies to Harris’s disdain for waste. The hallway holds precariously stacked bags and boxes of clothing and household goods. Three main rooms store furniture, small appliances, clothing, dishes, pots and pans, and knickknacks—all either donated or gleaned from the aftermath of estate and garage sales. The “sunshine room,” dedicated to infants and children, is filled with clothing and toys. A small table is set for a children’s tea party, while a stuffed dog stands sentry at the bathroom door. Inside, the tub is loaded with sheets and comforters waiting to be laundered and sent to new homes. More bags and boxes festoon the kitchen. A stove waits for repair near a large desk where volunteers do sorting.
Harris has short gray curls, a porcelain complexion, and lively blue eyes. She serves tea and homemade cookies on a china plate at an old mahogany table covered with a pink tablecloth—a ritual she performs with equal graciousness for clients, volunteers, and donors. The tea party/thrift store atmosphere and classical music on the radio are equally soothing and magical—as if Harris, like Mary Poppins, could transform any chaos she encounters into spit-spot order. Donna McDonald, a retired schoolteacher and unofficial Hearts program manager, has posted notes throughout the house that convey her opinion of the charity’s founder: “Angel in Action.”
Harris and McDonald became friends nearly five years ago after Harris moved here from California and began volunteering at Faith in Action in Chelsea, an outreach program founded in the late 1970s by the Ladies
Guild of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. McDonald ran the group’s food pantry and visited seniors and shut-ins. Harris worked in the pantry, sorted donations, and staffed the front desk.
As they worked, the two began talking about ways to fill the gaps they saw in Faith in Action’s mission. For instance, FIA couldn’t pick up furniture or clothing. “I’d meet people who were in town to make funeral arrangements and needed to empty a home or apartment quickly,” Harris recalls, “and FIA didn’t have the resources to get larger items or furniture. Many of them resorted to taking everything to dumps.”
Harris and McDonald decided they would glean items that other nonprofits didn’t have time to pick up or space to store, and help individuals who didn’t qualify for services from other agencies.
One time, a father was under court order to furnish a separate bedroom for his son’s weekend visits. “He’d lost his job and didn’t have the money,” says Harris. “We collected furnishings for him.”
Hearts also has helped battered women who have secured shelter but needed furniture and household goods; single mothers in need of clothing and furniture; a homeless man unable to find shoes to fit his big feet; and many others.
Her charity works with many agencies, including Catholic Social Services, Michigan Ability Partners, SafeHouse, Pregnancy Counseling Center, and St. Louis Center. “We feel at Hearts that if there’s a need, there’s a need,” says Harris. “It’s not up to us to judge. If we have it, why not give it?
“We try to encourage folks to come to us,” she adds, “but for many, transportation is impossible.” So Harris and her husband of twenty-five years, William, use their small Ford Ranger truck to make pickups and deliveries, scheduling them around his full-time job at radio station WEMU. McDonald and other volunteers, some of them from Hearts’ nine-member board of directors, help sort, clean, and organize items.
Harris first found support for her charity from Chelsea’s Ladies
of St. Mary Catholic Church. The group donated $3,000 with a promise for continued annual contributions. St. Barnabas has also agreed to an annual contribution. Two friends have volunteered to write grants.
Harris originally rented a 1,300-square-foot warehouse in Chelsea to store donations but found it too dark and cold. In October 2008, she bought the house on East Street, so Hearts could have a home. (She and her husband live on the outskirts of town.)
Hearts also collects vases and baskets that McDonald fills with donated flowers and delivers to the shut-ins, convalescents, and lonely folks she visits. A “sewing for seniors” program collects fabric and notions to be used for mending and sewing lap blankets and walker and wheelchair bags.
Eric Hendershot, housing coordinator for Michigan Ability Partners, says Harris helps stock the transitional houses MAP runs for returning vets with post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, or other problems. “She’s a sweetheart,” he says.
A few months ago, Harris received a note with a check enclosed for $100 from a woman whom a vet had helped move. He asked the woman to send Hearts the check because, the note read, “He said you helped him a lot and now there are others who need it more than him. Thanks for what you do!”Hearts Community Service, 204 S. East Street, Chelsea, welcomes donations and volunteers; call Nancy Harris at 433–1101 or email her at email@example.com.
[Originally published in July, 2009.]