They began arriving early in the morning.
More than 600 of them, all clad in white T-shirts, walking up the pavilion at Headwaters Park West, beckoned by the smell of warm food and the mission ahead.
Soon thereafter Thursday, they began fanning out throughout the city, joined by another 600 or so people clad in the same T-shirts, the same sense of work ethic and the same goal.
Some spread mulch; some stocked the shelves of a food pantry; some power-washed buildings, and others cleaned or landscaped.
It was the United Way of Allen County’s 22nd annual Day of Caring, when volunteers from a multitude of organizations and businesses made their way throughout the city to help others.
“The day reinforces how generous Allen County residents and companies are with their time, talent and treasures, and United Way is honored to continue to organize this event,” Todd Stephenson, president and CEO of United Way of Allen County, said in a statement.
The rabbit briefly startled Kari Houston.
One moment she was spreading mulch around by a sidewalk outside the Early Childhood Alliance building; the next, a white-tailed fur ball was hopping out of a bush and making a dash for a more peaceful shelter.
“I keep disrupting his habitat,” Houston said.
She and her PNC Bank co-worker, Kevin Patrick, were doing the landscaping outside the alliance while other PNC Bank employees were power-washing the building behind.
Other volunteers for other businesses were performing similar tasks at Weisser Park and Abbett elementary schools, the League for the Blind and other sites.
“I think as adults, we have a responsibility to support all children, not just our own,” said Patrick, who has three adult daughters.
The volunteers working at the Early Childhood Alliance also took care of an important part of any child’s world:
They cleaned the sandbox.
Jordan Puckett works in human resources at Fort Wayne Metals, so her heart took a few extra beats when she watched her co-workers taking down a tree behind a home on Holton Avenue.
“That wasn’t nerve-wracking at all,” she said jokingly.
Workers from Fort Wayne Metals pulled ivy from fences, mowed lawns and spruced up yards at a row of homes owned by Vincent Village, an organization that finds shelter for the homeless.
They sweated in the sun, but the time gave first-, second- and third-shifters the rare chance to mingle with each other and share a story or two while they worked the day away.
“It’s pretty amazing what you can get done in a day,” said Tony Wyss, who said he was participating in at least his seventh, if not eighth or ninth, day of caring.
Wyss was involved in cutting down a tree, and he mused about how quickly it comes down when you have help.
If you’re the one cutting it down, it barely hits the ground before there’s a group of people cleaning up the branches and whisking it away, he said.
“It’s a lot easier,” he said.
In the spacious back warehouse, you could see those in the United Way T-shirts going through bins of cereal, soap, grapefruit juice and whatever other food was recently donated to the Community Harvest Food Bank.
In the back, volunteers were stuffing bags with food for seniors, while others were putting together boxes of food for children.
Others were bagging various foods.
Out on the main floor, they were stocking shelves.
Many of these United Way volunteers came from Kroger or the YWCA.
“They all know how to stock shelves, it’s awesome,” said Sara Koerner, the executive assistant to the executive director at the food bank.
The food bank serves more than 21,000 unique individuals a week, Koerner said, and last year had more than 9,000 people come to volunteer and help, which is a record.
More than 50 volunteers from the United Way were doing the same for the Day of Caring.
“It’s huge,” Koerner said of the effort. “It helps us so much. We couldn’t do any of this without the help of our volunteers and partners.”