Heavenly Cords – Local priest runs program to help keep his flock and community warm

The Rev. Harry Neeley (center) sorts through the woodpile as Wood Bank Ministry volunteers load up delivery trucks Monday morning behind Christ Episcopal Church in Sheridan. Photo by Ben Coulter

SHERIDAN – Winter can be a harsh time in southwest Montana. The landscape is swept with icy winds and drifted snow as far as the eye can see. Nights are long and dark.

Sometimes it can be a struggle to make it through the months of cold weather, and when this happens people rely on their community for support.

For volunteers at the Wood Bank Ministry at St. James Episcopal Church in Dillon, helping their neighbor is as simple as throwing another log on the fire.

The wood bank started in 1994 when retired Episcopal priest Harry Neeley and board members from the Dillon food bank decided to add a firewood program to their services. That year Neeley delivered six chords of wood, and as word got out the program grew to help people throughout Beaverhead County.

In 2008, the wood bank expanded to Christ Episcopal Church in Sheridan, and last year they delivered 210 chords of firewood to almost 400 individuals between three counties. This year they’ve already delivered 170 chords, more than 20 of those in Madison County.

For Neeley, the program has been his passion for the past 18 years. He spends more than 50 hours a week working and delivering firewood nine months out of the year, from September to mid – May.

He’s got a busy schedule keeping up with the demand for wood: bucking limbs, splitting rounds, delivering up to three chords at a time with a pickup and trailer. When he’s not doing the hard labor, Neeley applies for grants to fund the program.

The demand for wood through the program requires that the volunteers gather wood for 10 months out of the year. They used to cut trees from the forest , but now rely on three commercial suppliers in the area. Neeley takes calls for wood 24 hours a day 365 days a year, and he says his longest response time to delivery since the program began is two hours.

“I asked myself in prayer ‘What would be my mission for the rest of my life?’” Neeley said of his motivation to run the wood bank. “I just felt a deep calling to serve the poor.”

A Wood Bank Ministry volunteer lines up a round on a hydraulic wood splitter before loading it into a delivery truck. Photo by Ben Coulter

The wood bank relies on almost 30 volunteers between Dillon and Sheridan to help with processing and delivering wood. Using a fleet of 10 chainsaws and a hydraulic wood splitter, work crews have and efficient system of keeping the supply going out the community between four delivery trucks and two trailers.

On Monday, the volunteers were tossing rounds back and forth between woodpiles, lining them up quickly on the splitter before loading them into the truck.

The wood bank program has been such a success that other programs to help the community have spun off from it. Neeley’s wife Val had friends volunteer to knit hats and mittens for local children, and last year they delivered 60 dozen fresh eggs donated by local farmers. The program has given out rehabilitated chainsaws to a handful of clients so they can cut wood themselves. Having served as a fire chief for more than 30 years in California and working with local volunteer fire departments, Neeley also checks people’s woodstoves to make sure they work safely and efficiently.

Madison County Commissioner and Sheridan resident Dave Schulz has seen what a valuable resource the wood bank provides to people.

Many of the wood bank’s clients do not have the means to gather a wood supply themselves that will get them through the winter.

With people struggling economically, a lot of them can’t get to the hills to cut wood, Schulz said. As a concerned member of the community, he was glad that there is a program like the wood bank that helps those in need.

There is an application process to receive the wood banks services, but Neeley says anyone already receiving services from the food bank is eligible. The hotline for the Wood Bank Ministry is 596–3690.

For Neeley, his years as a priest have prepared him for the stark situations he often encounters. Many of the wood bank’s clients are young families struggling to support themselves and Neeley is just happy to help out where and when he can.

“I see the face of Christ in those people. And I don’t care what it takes, as long as I can move my feet I will be doing this,” he said. “Its so deeply rewarding personally and spiritually that I can’t do anything else.”

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