His pumpkin painting is neighborly gesture

Halloween tradition is just one part of his attempt to help others

October 28, 2006|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Robert Ford sat sketching Jack Skellington, the pumpkin king in Tim Burton's movie, The Nightmare Before Christmas, onto the plump, orange, round gourd.

He put the pumpkin down on his desk and walked over to a table filled with about a dozen others painted with witches, scarecrows, mummies or cartoon characters.

"I have to take a lot of breaks when I work on this one," said Ford of the movie character. "It's hard to draw all the detail on such a small space."

Ford, 69, of Carney, paints the pumpkins each year and then leaves them "on the doorsteps of people I know, and some people that I don't know."

The pumpkins are part of Ford's good-neighbor policy.

For more than eight years, Ford has volunteered for a program called Home Team, operating under the auspices of Baltimore County's Department of Aging. The program is designed to help elderly people stay in their homes and out of residential nursing facilities.

Home Team volunteers are asked to perform simple duties: make weekly home visits; tend to light household chores and repairs; and escort their charges to doctor's appointments and the grocery store.

Ford goes well beyond those tasks, said Colleen Shaneybrook, director of the Home Team program.

"Bob repairs broken windows and makes household repairs for his clients," said Shaneybrook. "And not only does he do this for his clients, he does it for people in his neighborhood. He's a friend to everyone."

Ford volunteered for the program after retiring from BGE, where he worked for 29 years as a gas installer.

First, he tried working with disabled children, but he said it was too difficult watching the children suffer. So he decided to help with the Home Team.

For 81-year-old Rita of Parkville, Ford was the answer to her prayers.

With diabetes, high blood pressure, stents in her arteries and arthritis in her spine, she doesn't get around much on her own anymore.

"I have very little strength," she said. "I was to the point where I had applied at St. Elizabeth Home for Nursing Care, and I was preparing to leave my home."

Then she met Ford after seeing an advertisement for the Home Team program.

"When I met Bob, I was so depressed and scared, I had given up all hope," she said. "Now I am so much better. Bob's here whenever I need him. And he helps my sister, too. He does everything I ask him to do, and much more."

She said that includes taking her to the grocery store and walking down the aisles with her.

"He tells me that if I ever get sick and can't shop for myself, he wants to be able to buy the brands that I buy," Rita said.

Ford has been recognized by the county for his efforts -- he has won the last two Good Neighbor awards and a Geri Award in 2004 for volunteering.

"It makes me feel good to think that people think I'm doing something important enough to be recognized," he said. "But I just do it because I'm an old person too, and I hope someone is willing to help me if I ever need it."

Each year shortly before Halloween, Ford paints about 75 pumpkins and takes them around to friends, family and people in his neighborhood that he thinks can use a boost in morale. He leaves a pumpkin on the front porch.

"I don't tell people that I left the pumpkins, but after so many years of doing it, I think they know," said Ford.

About two or three times a week, Ford also leaves goodie bags on Rita's front porch.

"I get up in the morning and open the door to go get the newspaper, and there will be a bag of goodies," she said. "I can't afford my subscriptions to Reader's Digest and Better Homes and Gardens, so Bob leaves them in the bags with homemade cookies and things like that."

The first time Ford left Rita a bag, she had no idea where it came from.

"I didn't know people did things like that. But now whenever I see a bag, or I open the front door to a decorated porch, or lightpost, I just say, `Bob's been here,'" said Rita.

"I still can't walk anywhere but out to get my paper, but I feel safe now, because I know Bob's nearby," Rita said. "He showed me there's physical help, and help to build the spirits of people who are all alone."

That's what makes it worthwhile, said Ford.

"Most elderly people don't live long once they leave their home," he said. "It makes me feel good to make someone smile. I walk out of their house feeling good about myself."

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