By CHRISTINA RITCHIE ROGERS
CORNELIUS – In his living room Jack Hart has a comfortable recliner, a lovely couch and an artisan table, but his favorite piece of furniture is a small, wooden Windsor chair he bought for $15 at the Habitat ReStore in Cornelius. It was in pieces when he got it, and he meticulously repaired it using only clamps – the way it should be done, he said.
That chair is just one of the many pieces of furniture Mr. Hart, 93, has repaired and restored over the past seven years. A World War II veteran and former engineer, he began volunteering at the Habitat ReStore in Cornelius in 2006 as a merchandise repair expert and has logged more than 3,500 volunteer hours since. This week, he was named Home Instead Senior Care’s North Carolina Senior Volunteer of the Year for his work with Our Towns Habitat for Humanity.
“He is so positive and so passionate about Habitat, and everything he does for Habitat he does to the Nth degree,” Resource Development Director Tammy Cox said.
Mr. Hart first went to the ReStore in search of a distraction – something to lift his spirits after his wife, Sara, died. He cared for her around the clock in their Huntersville home for five years as her health declined, and when she died he became very depressed, he said. What he found at the ReStore was more than just a distraction – he found an extended family.
“Those people there are so compassionate and so sweet, I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be,” he said. “Last year I took no sick days because I wanted to be with my friends.”
Since starting as a part-time merchandise repair volunteer in 2006, Mr. Hart has increased his hours and now splits his time working in the Cornelius and Mooresville ReStores. He also has traveled to Guatemala three times on Habitat for Humanity builds.
The Guatemala projects are a lot of work – volunteer builders begin around 6 a.m. and work until 4 p.m. – and Mr. Hart is by far the oldest Guatemala volunteer. He and the other volunteers help to rebuild and repair homes damaged by floods, hurricanes and other deterioration.
“You’d be surprised how much 24 people can get done in a day,” he said.
But what really stands out in Mr. Hart’s mind are the “bright smiles” from the children and families they help. His experiences in Guatemala have been eye opening, and help to keep life in perspective, he said.
“It just tears your heart out to see how they have to live,” he said. “You see how others are suffering and how rich we are. All they want is a roof, something to eat an a happy family.”
Earlier this year Mr. Hart was unable to return to Guatemala for a fourth time because of his health, but he kept the perspective he gained in Guatemala – no matter how bad his health, he reminds himself of how much he has and how fortunate he is, he said. And he hopes to recover with enough time to return to Guatemala in November.
Mr. Hart’s fellow Guatemala team members and other ReStore coworkers visited him while he was in the hospital, and have remained a support system for him during recovery.
“There isn’t anything in the world he wouldn’t do for us and we would do anything for him,” Ms. Cox said.
But Mr. Hart hasn’t let his recovery slow him down – he remains focused on his volunteer work, and still works four days a week at the ReStores.
“I try to not look inside but look out and see what needs to be done,” he said.
In 2011, Mr. Hart and his family started the Our Towns Habitat for Humanity Jack Hart Foundation with $10,000. Over the last year, the fund has grown to more than $40,000 from donations in his honor from his friends, family and fellow volunteers.
“Out of everyone I’ve met, he has had the most impact on me as a person,” Ms Cox said. “He’s family.”