The goal is an obvious one: Give elderly people some help with chores so they can stay in their own house rather than a nursing home — which increases the happiness and independence of the older folks while saving the taxpayers a bundle of money.

The method for achieving the goal is what’s a bit unorthodox: Spring a few guys from the local jail, supply them with power tools and bring them to the homes of senior citizens.

The prospects for success seem even more remote when considering that the inmates — mostly alcohol and drug offenders — are asked to do manual labor through the sultriest stretches of summer and the most wicked weeks of winter. Top it off with the fact that their participation is entirely voluntary with no pay provided and no reduction in their jail sentences.

Two years after the unusual program began, it is an unqualified success, say officials from VINE Faith in Action, the local organization that coordinates volunteers to help people whose health problems threaten to force them from their homes.

“It just amazes me the amount of talent that’s sitting in those jails waiting to be tapped,” said Fred Miller, the chore coordinator for VINE. “Because these guys are really talented people. They’re not vagrants. They’re not bums. They’re just like you and me.”

Well, one thing that separates VINE’s jail guys from average Mankatoans — beyond place of residence — is the number of volunteer hours contributed by the inmates and how much they’ve accomplished in that time.

In May and June alone, the jail volunteers mowed lawns 76 times while also trimming hedges, weeding flower gardens, cleaning up storm damage, replacing plumbing, building a wheelchair ramp, installing or fixing air conditioners in four homes ...

All of the work was done for older people or those with serious physical or mental health problems.

“We always get the comment ‘You know, if you guys weren’t here doing this, I couldn’t stay here,’” said Miller, who officially supervises the jail workers for VINE but mainly seems to work side by side with them.

Taking a break from a weed-clearing job for a 93-year-old woman Friday, Miller said his volunteers work year-round. He’s a got a reliable group of non-criminal volunteers as well, but the inmates allow him to triple the number of homes served.

In the winter, the crews clear snow from walks and driveways. After the big snowfall in March, Miller and seven jail inmates shoveled a foot of snow at 33 homes.

Friday, by contrast, was a beautiful fall day. But Stefan Wasinger of Garden City isn’t a fair-weather volunteer. He figures he’s stepped up at least 30 times when Miller has asked for volunteers.

A construction worker serving time for driving while under the influence, Wasinger has mowed, shoveled, painted, roofed and done siding work for VINE recipients.

“Anything they can’t do, we can,” he said.

Wasinger likes working outside, but it’s the gratitude of the mostly elderly people the program serves that motivates him.

“I enjoy seeing the smiles after we’re done,” he said.

And he likes Miller.

“He’s a good guy,” Wasinger said. “He’s got a big heart.”

VINE Director Pam Determan had a similar comment about the 6-foot, 5-inch, 300-pound Miller.

“What I love about Fred is his huge heart,” Determan said. “His heart is as big as his body.”

The inmates provide labor and Miller provides some very quiet guidance, Determan said.

“The term we use is that Fred has his own jail ministry,” she said. “He’s not a real churchy guy ... But he gives his fatherly advice.”

Miller said he simply treats his jail volunteers for what they are: people freely giving of their time to help others. For a few, the motivation has more to do with nicotine cravings than altruism (“The reason they do it is they can smoke,” he explains. “They can’t do that in jail.”)

For others, their motive is the same as Wasinger’s.

And the gratitude expressed for “Fred’s boys” by the elderly recipients is sincere, Determan said. She remembers seeing one inmate begin to cry when an old woman thanked him for all the work he’d done by handing him a plateful of homemade cookies to enjoy back at the jail.

“I think maybe no one had ever done anything like that for him,” she said.

While many recipients are middle-class older folks, VINE also serves people who are desperately poor, Miller said. He thinks the jail volunteers gain some valuable perspective seeing people at the bottom of society’s social structure and then providing them a hand.

“There is a gratification that you get from helping someone else,” he said. “Things can be going pretty lousy in your life and you find someone who needs your help. Well, it feels pretty good.”

After a half hour, Miller, Wasinger and one other inmate had spiffed up the 93-year-old’s yard on Fourth Street in Mankato. The men had had made quick work of whacking the weeds and cleaning them up.

Wasinger, however, had clearly avoided yanking one plant — a cornstalk that had inexplicably grown up along the curb of the busy urban street. Miller asked why he’d skipped it, and Wasinger said he thought it looked cool — a stalk of corn sprouting in the middle of weed-choked city boulevard.

“All right,” Miller said. “Let’s leave it.”

And in a bit, they headed back to the jail where they’d stay until Miller came by the next time looking for some willing volunteers.

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