By Chris Hendrickson, Contributing Writer
Monica Bertollini, a 5 foot-1-inch, 94-pound powerhouse from Skagit County, is a woman who knows how to get things done.
When Bertollini heard that H3 Horses Healing Heroes President needed help moving 10 cabins located on the Volunteers of America (VOA) property in Sultan to her place out on Fern Bluff Road, she sprang into action. After meeting with Gibson and discussing a strategy that included disassembling the cabins on-site and transporting them to H3 on flatbed trucks via U.S. 2; she set about gathering the resources necessary to accomplish the task.
Moving the VOA’s cabins, which were once used as a summer camp for disadvantaged youth, was an immediate necessity in order to make room for the new Boys and Girls Club of Sultan. Gibson, who operates H3, a nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting U.S. veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress and other traumatic brain injury, became interested in the cabins when she heard that they were going to be torn down and destroyed.
She thought that she might be able to repurpose them for the benefit of the Wounded Warriors with whom she works, and began to visualize a way to incorporate the rustic old structures into the equine assisted psychotherapy that she provides at her 50-acre facility. Gibson, who recently obtained her federal 501C3 status, felt that the cabins would enhance her ability to help with transitioning veterans who have recently returned from deployment.
Additionally, they could be used for short-term weekend stays, arts and crafts and family time.
“We will be able to do many great things with these cabins,” said Gibson.
After her meeting with Bertollini, Gibson made the decision to commit to the VOA, who had proposed a deadline; if she wanted them, the cabins needed to be completely dismantled and removed by no later than March 15.
Since February 23, Bertollini has coordinated countless volunteers to help with the project, in addition to rounding up a myriad of heavy equipment. From cranes to sledgehammers to wheelbarrows and everything in between, Bertollini arranged it, at absolutely no cost to Gibson.
She enlisted help from experts like James Harmon of James Harmon Construction, a Snohomish County general contractor who volunteered the services of both himself and his crew. Harmon, who paid his workers for their time, donated the labor to H3 for no charge.
Harmon’s team began taking apart the cabins on Friday, Feb. 28, and labored for two full days, persevering through the snowy weather on March 1.
“This is what happens when people see a need and come together to fill it,” said Bertollini.
Over the course of the last two weeks Bertollini organized cranes, an excavator, a dump-truck, several flatbeds and much more. Not one to delegate things she can do herself, since starting the project, Bertollini has spent much of her time wearing a hardhat and working right alongside the volunteers.
She also recruited Ness Cranes crane operator Dillon Arway, who stepped forward and donated both equipment and labor to aid in meeting the March 15 deadline.
Bertollini was motivated to become involved with Gibson’s organization due to her own experiences trying to help a troubled veteran who had become homeless and was living on the streets in Burlington, where she lives with her two sons. It was January, and a very general announcement had gone out into the community announcing concern for the man, along with a description of his whereabouts.
It struck Bertollini, who saw the announcement and was troubled that somebody was living outside in the middle of winter.
“Obviously as a parent, I can’t go pick the guy up and bring him home,” said Bertollini. “It’s just not practical.”
So she decided to do something else. Bertollini packed up dinner leftovers from the home-cooked meal she had just made for her kids, coffee and a stack of extra blankets, and set out to check on the man for herself. When she arrived she quickly realized that she was not the only one who found the man’s distress troubling; people had arrived from as far away as Concrete bringing food, tarps, clothes, pocket-warmers, gloves and more.
“I’ve always been someone that tries to be involved in my community,” said Bertollini. “But that was the most humbling thing I think I’d ever seen.”
And it didn’t stop there for Bertollini. She continued to seek ways to offer assistance to the man, whose name is Robert. She was able to confirm that he is a veteran, and that he suffers from mental health issues including post-traumatic stress. She was struck by the lack of resources available to him.
“They deserve more respect than that,” said Bertollini.
She has since spent time in courtrooms, city council meetings, making phone calls, sending emails and even traveling to Olympia in an effort to find ways to help this veteran. When she stumbled across Gibson’s nonprofit agency and learned of H3’s mission, she thought that maybe they could join forces.
“I just got really tired of hearing, ‘We can’t;’ ‘We don’t;’ ‘It’s not going to work…’ and so when I heard that Arleen was pressing forward with this I said, ‘Well, we’re going to show you it can work,’” said Bertollini.
Bertollini, who is now serving as H3’s volunteer coordinator, started work on Wednesday, Feb. 26, tearing old wiring out of the cabins; which needed to be removed from the structures before they could be safely disassembled. From there she has coordinated with volunteers like her sister, Chantell Bertollini, and Lana Larson, both of whom are members of the Bellingham Roller Betties derby team. Along with Larry Brooks, the three traveled from Bellingham to assist with the project. Other long-distance volunteers included Jarrod Powell and Olum Wyatt, who came from Burlington, and Brandie Hassing, who lives in Seattle.
Local valley residents have stopped by to lend a hand including Ken Gast, Frank Bentley, Charles Anthony, Walt Mire, and John Moore, who is a Vietnam Veteran.
John Hoyt, who owns the Sultan second hand store Thrifty-4-You, also volunteered his time and his much-needed utility trailer.
Bertollini stated that every nail pulled has been a critical aspect of getting the project done and no task has gone unnoticed by herself and Gibson. She has tried to let everyone know that they’re appreciated, including the Sky Valley Senior Center for their pancake breakfast on March 1, at which Bertollini fed her entire crew.
Gibson shared that she is beyond words as far as the extent of her gratitude. To her, what started as a glimmer of an idea is now becoming a reality. She has been overwhelmed so far at the volunteer response.
“I’m humbled and I’m grateful,” said Gibson. “They’ve been amazing. They’ve given us their time and their energy, as well as their incredible goodwill.”
The work will continue this week as they race to meet the March 15 deadline, and they are continuing to seek additional volunteers. After the disassembled cabins are completely removed from VOA property, Bertollini will begin to organize for phase two of the project that will include rebuilding them at H3.
For information on how to volunteer contact Arleen Gibson or Monica Bertollini via the H3 Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/h3horseshealingheroes.