The annual Rake&Bake, a Brookfield tradition that brings out the community in a singular show of charity, in numbers that seem unreal to those who don’t see it happen year after year, is the end result of one man and his family reaching out to their neighbors and making a tangible difference in their lives.
Fourteen years ago, Brookfielder Peter Brady, now 70, along with five family members and four friends, answered the call to help two fellow elderly parishioners from St. Joseph’s Church rake the leaves from their lawns. Afterwards, the group rested and enjoyed a hotdog lunch together and the Rake&Bake was born.
Fourteen years later, more than 1,000 area residents gathered in the Brookfield High School (BHS) gym Saturday morning, split into designated teams and tackled 80 properties in Brookfield, Bethel, Danbury, New Milford and Sandy Hook. Afterward, they all returned to the gymnasium for a smorgasbord of food, fixings and the satisfaction of knowing they spent their Saturday morning making a real difference for someone in their community. And, of course, there were plenty of hotdogs.
“I don’t know any other guy who can get a thousand people to come rake leaves,” Brady's daughter, Ellen Cartwright, said. “He’s just a very unique character who has a lot of passion for things… He’s infectious.”
Brady, who retired from Nestlé in 2000 and began the non-profit Handy Dandy Handyman Ministries (HDHM), spent the day working the same properties he started at all those years ago.
“I was the first one that called and they’ve been coming back every year,” said Wanda Emond, who has lived in her home on Brookfield Meadows since 1960. “They help a lot of people. All I can say is ‘thank you, thank you, thank you.’”
The crews descend on the property each year and clean just under an acre in less than an hour and a half, according to Emond’s daughter, Susan Champagne, who was on-hand to help out.
“They’re amazing,” Champagne said of the volunteers. “They come in like a bunch of ants,” with workers young and old swarming the property and snagging every fallen leaf, “It’s a huge help.”
This year, the Brookfield Meadows team also tackled two neighboring properties with rakes, tarps and blowers, completely cleaning all three in under an hour and a half.
A Full-time Job
Though the work time is short — most crews get to their designated properties by 8:30 and are back at high school before 11 a.m. — preparation for the Rake&Bake begins in September, with months of planning and organizing.
It begins with collecting homes. This year, some 90 homes applied for help (15 more than 2010 and the current high), however after Winter Storm Alfred, some properties were still too dangerous to work on or needed to be preserved for insurance reasons, bringing this year’s total down to 80. As each home comes in, Brady and his core team visit the property to assess the amount of leaves, how they will be disposed of, what kind of equipment should be used (all brought from home by the volunteers) and how many workers it will take to finish the job in a few hours.
Together, HDHM organizes the groups, matching numbers and equipment to the appropriate properties, and solicits local vendors for the Bake half of the day. This year, Shop Rite donated the rolls, paper plates and utensils, Panera gave 400 cookies, People’s Savings Bank delivered a check to help cover the cost of the caterers and Candlewood Roasting Company provided the coffee. And, of course, there were 1,500 hotdogs.
“He used to do it all by himself,” Brady’s wife, Carol Ann, said while taking a break from raking. “But it’s gotten so big that he has a great crew that helps him out now.”
According to Carol Ann, “When it was time for him to retire, he thought he’s been so lucky, we’ve been so lucky… and he thought, ‘let me give back’ because we’ve been so fortunate.”
When the Rake&Bake started out “it was just a few of us, and the same with Handy Dandy Handyman,” she said. “Maybe two or three people painting inside a house, and then suddenly it got bigger and bigger and bigger,” to the point where, often, there are more volunteers throughout the year than there is work to be done.
An Infectious Case of Volunteerism
But the volunteering spirit wasn’t a new thing for Brady and neither was his ability to infect others with that same drive to help others.
“Even when he was a teenager and out of college, he’s always been doing this,” his daughter, Kerri Brady, said. Throughout his life, it was “usually on his own,” she said, “He sees something that needs to be done: he does it.”
Her sister, Cartwright, said, as a teacher, she is “always amazed” by her father’s ability to inspire others to action in such a big way.
She said her father mixes his “infectious” enthusiasm with empathy for those they are helping, brewing a strong motivation to chip in and give back.
“He really creates a story that makes you want to extend yourself,” Cartwright explained, “Because if you were wearing those people’s shoes, you’d wish there was something like that for you.”
As the Rake&Bake, and the ministry, has grown over the years, it has been Brady’s enthusiasm that keeps it going and keeps the community coming back to help.
When seventh graders Jonathan Pistone, Oscar Urena and Ian Garcia were asked why they pitch in, their answer was simple: “’Cause he asked for help.”
“Every year it gets bigger and more people participate,” Brookfield resident and four-year veteran of the Rake&Bake Eric Riddle said.
Enjoying his hard-earned hotdog in the gym afterward, Riddle remembered the “look on her face — and every year the look on their face when they see us coming in with all the red [the uniform of the Rake&Bakers] — and then just to come back and see the camaraderie and seeing these familiar faces year after year, it’s just been an amazing experience over the years for me,” he said, vowing to come back every year he can in the future.
“This is one of the most fantastic experiences anybody can be a part of,” resident Dolores Santoliquido said. “It’s a wonderful community of people interested in sharing and helping and caring.”