Where the heart is: neighbors ban together to make a home for Jerry
“Love thy neighbor.”
It’s a simple rule of thumb, really, said Laurie Lewis. It’s an easy edict that most people have heard about and yet sometimes falls on the wayside of every day life.
But that was never the case for Lewis’ neighbor, Jerry Bajema, who she said was always looking out for his fellow man in their tiny Whatcom County community of Van Zandt.
This winter, when the town was hit hard by the winter storms, Bajema didn’t hesitate to get out and plow the roads for them. He had the ability, the tools, and the will, and so he felt it was just the natural thing to do for his neighbors, no questions asked, Lewis said.
“He’s very, very quiet,” Lewis said of her friend of 37 years. “He calls himself the ‘Hermit Man.’ But when someone needed help [he was there.]”
Bajema said he is friends with almost all of his neighbors, but not all of them are friendly with each other. That all changed a few weeks ago, on July 7, when Bajema had a life-threatening accident.
He was standing on a ladder cutting branches with his chainsaw Bajema said. He was only using one arm. Next thing he knew, something had happened and the chainsaw had almost completely severed his left arm. Shocked, and thinking the arm entirely gone, Bajema fell to the ground, landing with his hand again entangled in the chainsaw.
Once he realized his arm was still attached, Bajema said he grabbed it with his other arm and went into his home to call 911.
“It felt like a piece of firewood,” Bajema said. “I walked in the house, called 911 and they came and got me. Apparently just in time.”
An EMT later told Lewis that by the time they arrived at Bajema’s house, he was mere moments away from death due to loss of blood.
Lewis and her family arrived home just in time to see the ambulance taking Bajema away. While her husband rushed to take care of the chainsaw, she got in her car and drove the half-hour to Bellingham’s St. Joseph’s Hospital, where she acted as his family–filling out his paper work, and even digging through his blood-soaked pants to find his ID.
For Bajema’s part, he doesn’t remember much of the trip after being loaded into the ambulance, other than waking up to see Lewis and being told he would be flown to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle in the hopes they could reattach his arm.
Several surgeries and two weeks later, Bajema is out of the hospital and back at his house in Van Zandt–but not his home. That’s what this small community is pulling together to give back to their neighbor in his time of need.
What the neighbors didn’t know before Bajema was taken to the hospital was what the inside of the 100-year-old house looked like. When the Lewis’ entered Bajema’s house while he was in the hospital to take care of his dogs, what they found shocked them, she said.
“It just took our breath away,” Lewis said. “It was pretty primitive. Pretty inventive too.”
Bajema’s house was little more than a shelter, with no electric heat, no hot water, blown out kitchen windows, and a layer of black soot caked over everything.
“We were going in with yellow gloves and coming out with black gloves,” she said.
Lewis said she turned on a small light and the room didn’t get much lighter because of all the black soot. As she moved into the kitchen, she found what appeared to be the culprit, a burned out hole above the oven.
Lewis didn’t know it until then, but a few years ago, the inside of Bajema’s house had caught fire while he was trying to dry out some firewood for use.
“I thought, ‘There’s no way he can come back to this,’” Lewis said. “And he never told anybody.”
Bajema said he had intended to fix it up when he moved in, but it became apparent that it would just be easier to build a new house than repair what was left. Living off of a small Social Security check and money earned from odd jobs, he couldn’t afford. Besides, Lewis said he told her, it wasn’t that bad, at least it was something.
But it’s not good enough for these neighbors who are intent on building Bajema a new home, from the bottom, a new septic system, up to at least a single-wide trailer, which is more than enough, Bajema said.
“It’s pretty incredible,” Bajema said. “A bunch of great neighbors.”
Lewis said they’ve already raised more than $1,000 in just two weeks, including a $500 donation online through the website. Anyone and everyone interested in helping build Bajema a home, can find out how to do so here.
He’s glad to see his neighbors all coming together, he said, but this was “a hard way to do it.” But he said he’s learned his lesson, and that’s what he hopes to share with others.
“No one-armed chain sawing. No cutting on a ladder,” he said. “Be slow and be safe.”
Although he was warned in advance about what waited for him when he left the hospital, Bajema said he was still surprised to see his neighbors pull together in such a big way.
“It’s a new life, [that] doesn’t really matter,” he said. “I came so close to dying, everything from here is a bonus.”