With his wife dying slowly of cancer at their Upland home, Carl Miele was laden with a world of burdens.
Besides the constant grief, he was working two jobs to pay the rising medical bills, acting as a nighttime nurse and, in between, sleeping little more than two or three hours a day.
The least of his concerns, presumably, were the weeds that were beginning to dominate his usually tidy front yard.
But, according to a group of weekend volunteers who call themselves Yardbusters, the gardening problems of the terminally ill are serious business. More than a year's worth of calluses testify to their commitment.
Referred to Miele by the Pomona-based Inland Hospice Assn., a 10-member Yardbuster team swooped down on his unkempt lawn last April and, during two Saturday shifts, transformed the yard into a manicured oasis.
"It came at a time when I really needed the help," said Miele, whose wife died shorty after the work was completed. "At least it's nice to know you got somebody there to stand by you."
The Yardbusters, who all work in General Telephone's Pomona Valley division, say their free service eliminates the irritant of yardwork and enhances the quality of life for the terminally ill and their families.
Usually spending one Saturday a month, the group began volunteering its time about a year and a half ago when cancer struck the family of a co-worker.
Since then, members have worked on seven homes in the east San Gabriel Valley and western San Bernardino County, with each job requiring from two to four eight-hour visits.
"Once we got going, it was fun," said Dean Parker, a GTE equipment maintainer, who heads the amateur gardening team. "It's more rewarding than you can imagine."
While overgrown greenery may not seem like the most pressing problem for the terminally ill, directors of the Inland Hospice Assn. say the value of the volunteer yardwork is reflected in the heightened comfort of the patient.
"It becomes a depressing situation to see your yard getting worse and worse and not being able to do anything about it," said Peg Sweesy, who until recently was executive director of the nonprofit organization. "When people die, I think they like to get their lives in order. (An unkempt lawn) can be a symbol that your general life is a mess."
With more than 75 trained volunteers, the hospice association provides the terminally ill and their families with services ranging from counseling to housekeeping to funeral arrangements. Besides acting as a referral agency for groups such as Yardbusters, the organization has lined up volunteer barbers to give haircuts and podiatrists to cut toenails.
"If there's a need in the family, we'll find somebody to provide the service," Sweesy said. "It's a matter of comfort and quality of life."
In a letter thanking Yardbusters for their help, one cancer patient expressed that sentiment exactly.
"This service is greatly appreciated by me," the patient wrote last fall. "It not only has made my property look nicer, but has given me peace of mind to be able to cope with my condition."
GTE has assisted the volunteers by providing grants to the hospice association of $500 and $1,500, which have been used to cover the costs of tools, trash bags and other landscaping supplies. Patients are not asked to give anything, Parker said, except to make bathrooms available to the gardening crew.
On a drizzly Saturday in April at the Miele house, the volunteer gardeners, many of whom had brought their children, spent the morning mowing, raking and weeding until heavy rains forced them to reluctantly call it a day.
"You won't see me doing yardwork at my own house very often," said Lil Bribiesca, a service clerk during the week, who was on her knees hunting for weeds in damp patches of dirt. "But I don't mind doing this."
Bob Sensel, a burly switchman who was raking the backyard, concurred.
"We don't expect anything," he said. "It's a sense of fulfillment. I could stay home, but there's people worse off than we are, so it can wait."
Added Judy Perkins, a business account representative with clumps of crabgrass in her hands: "It sure beats cleaning house."
Parker, a muscular man with a dense beard who helps keeps Pomona Valley telephones equipped with dial tones, said the biggest problem facing his crew of Yardbusters is simply persuading people to accept the service.
"Most people are just too proud to ask for help," he said. "Cleaning up the toughest, nastiest, most overgrown yard is easy compared to getting people to say, 'Sure, I'll take your help.' "
But, at least for Miele, who in better times did his own yardwork, the assistance was a welcome boost.
"I was kind of tied up," he said. "They can help until you get on your feet."