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RISMEDIA, May 3, 2008-(MCT)-The North Fork, Calif., home of Caroline Dezan and Ford James was all abuzz, literally, one recent Saturday morning.

James and two friends were using chain saws to cut apart oaks that had fallen. Three other friends were tackling a pond, re-leveling and weeding it. Three more friends were inside their home painting bathrooms.

Dezan, his wife, dashed from one project to another, answering questions and giving directions.

“I’m happy to have friends help and not have to worry about paying a ton of money for a contractor,” says Dezan, 35, a biologist.

You might dream about having your own work crew to help with those home projects you never seem to get around to. Well, if you take a cue from Dezan, James and their group of friends, you can create your own crew-and maybe have some fun while you’re working. But to make the most of the opportunities, plan well, be flexible and have enough food on hand.

Members of the group, who call their gatherings work parties, first got together shortly before one couple was to be married at a friend’s property in 2003. The group decided to fix and prepare the backyard for the wedding. They enjoyed it so much, they decided to start holding monthly work parties the next year.

Although other friends and family members occasionally join in, the core group involves about 10 people from six households.

Most have known each other for at least five or six years and are connected to the nearby California Vipassana Center, a meditation center where they volunteer or take courses.

Work Party Basics

The work parties typically are held once a month on a Saturday or Sunday roughly from September to June. For that reason, the group has tried to keep the number of the core people involved to about 10 or less.

“That way, there are enough months that we can get to all the households and still have a few months off for summer,” Dezan says.

Couples can attend each party and have two parties at their home each year. Otherwise, they can send one person for a full day, or both of them can come and spend half the day.

For the most part, the projects have been limited to ones that are easy, fun and safe for everyone. They have included household chores homeowners have neglected for months because of time or avoided because of the labor involved.

“It’s whatever you want to get done. I love that,” says Dan Rosenberg, 42, who does educational master planning for California community colleges. “For work parties, I usually pick the least desirable (projects that would be) for me or the most difficult. For example, painting my deck-that’s a pretty fun and easy job.”

But when he decided to put down about 1,000 square feet worth of laminate hardwood flooring, “that was like, `Oh, that’s going to take a long time.'”

So he saved it for when the work party fell on his day this past winter. “I had seven people do a huge amount of work in one day,” he says. “We got about 80 percent done. The following weekend, my housemate and I got the rest done.

“The year before that, we put up a deer fence, about 40 feet by 40 feet. Inside of that is my vegetable garden.”

Because most work-party participants are do-it-yourselfers, minor mistakes occasionally can occur. For example, “when we were putting down the flooring, you’d look back and say, `Oh, that one’s crooked,'” says Rosenberg, adding it wasn’t a big deal.

With “my nature, I was like, `Oh that’s fine,'” he says. “But my friends encouraged me to redo it. We did, and it looks great.”

“We haven’t made any major mistakes, but I think everybody’s pretty good about checking and making sure they know what they’re doing,” says Matthew Englund, a 42-year-old science teacher at Glacier High School Charter in Oakhurst, Calif.

Nor have there been any accidents or injuries.

“Liability, yeah, it’s something to think about,” Englund says. “But as a group of friends, we’re not even of that mind. But if people didn’t know each other as well, that’s something” to consider.

Rosenberg adds: “I would absolutely make sure, if you’re going to do work parties, everybody should have home-owners insurance.”

Party Roles

For the work parties to be effective and efficient, the homeowner hosting that day’s party and those who helping out need to know what their roles are.

Even though the homeowner is getting some free labor for the day, he has a lot of preparation work that needs to get done. First up is deciding what jobs to tackle.

“You have to have the projects well defined and all the tools you need,” says Steven Parks, 62, a member of the management team at the meditation center. “You only have one shot a year.”

Next, the homeowner has to round up all the tools and supplies. This group of friends often communicates by e-mail, and the host of the next party will send out an e-mail asking people to bring certain tools if they have them.

To prepare for the work party at her house, Dezan spent about two days doing preliminary work, such as sharpening chain saws and fixing garden carts. Projects she had lined up included cutting down trees that had fallen on her four acres, cleaning up a pond and painting two bathrooms.

“I try to think of all the things we might use or at least know where they are. … I was able to prepare this year,” she says. “In the past, I was just grateful for what got done.”

Another homeowner duty is supplying breakfast and lunch.

“Really good food is a good incentive to get people there,” says 52-year-old Elissa Brown, a grant writing consultant.

Instead of making the dishes the day of, “you want to make sure you’ve got something prepared,” Rosenberg says.

One alternative is giving the chef’s job to someone else. Last year, Rosenberg asked Brown to help with the food at his work party.

“So she went in a hour or so early and prepared lunch while I got to do something else,” he says.

The work crew usually shows up around 8 a.m. for breakfast. The workers bring tools the homeowner requested and then follow the homeowner’s directions.

“We always go with what the homeowners want,” Rosenberg says. “The only time we might have disagreements is between spouses. But our friends, their relationships are really strong. They will talk about it and make a decision.”

If he’s painting a wall, “I don’t care what paint color people go with. I might offer opinions; (but) I’m not going to sit there and argue with (the homeowner) about the color.”

Work and Play

During breakfast or right after, everyone will go through a list of jobs the homeowner has prioritized, and participants will volunteer for the ones that interest them.

“We typically like to work in pairs or groups,” Englund says. “It’s easier and funner.”
People are free to move from one job to another. Lunch is at noon, and the party ends around 3 p.m.

The gatherings aren’t just about helping homeowners. They also offer opportunities for friends to visit and socialize.

“You get to see people you like,” says Brown, who pauses from leveling dirt around the pond. “You get to talk to them. Here, you can work with someone for an hour and talk to them. At a party, it’s hard to talk.”

Jane McBride, a 61-year-old who’s knee-deep in the pond weeding, adds: “It’s a real community-building experience.”

While Brown and Rosenberg went back and forth bringing dirt from another part of the property to the pond, they talked about books on tape they were interested in and movie rental recommendations.

“We were just catching up,” says Brown, who hadn’t seen Rosenberg for about three weeks.

The group of friends urge others to give work parties a shot.

“If people want to start their own group, I would look for people you sort of trust and have similar needs,” Englund says.

Also start with a small number of work parties and easy jobs, Rosenberg says. “Pick projects that you can complete in a day or almost in a day,” he says. “Otherwise, your house is going to be a wreck.”

But don’t forget, work parties are more than just about getting work done.

“No. 1, it’s all about fun,” Englund says. “We have a good balance of fun and work. And the No. 2 thing is that people should really enjoy learning and giving service.

“It’s more about the friendship, the fun and the service you do.”

© 2008, The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.