Residents in an Oro Valley community have joined forces to beautify the landscaping in their common area and, as a result, have strengthen their common bonds as neighbors.

Since Jan. 10, between 25 and 40 volunteers ranging in age from 65 to 92 – all residents at the Highlands Mobile Home Estates in Oro Valley – have raked, tugged, planted and pushed themselves to their physical limits, all for a common cause.

“We got to the point where watering the grass in our common area got too expensive and wasteful,” said Highlands’ resident Bill Behrendsen. To save money, members of the Highlands’ board of directors decided to replace the water-gulping grass with low-water, low-maintenance indigenous plants. They figured they could save $1,600 to $1,800 in water costs each month. The cost to hire a landscape architect and crew exceeded the community’s budget, so the project was put on hold. For four years.

Then last year, Behrendsen decided, “something needed to be done.” The HOA allocated $13,000 from its dues, and Behrendsen became the ultimate multi-tasker, taking on the roles of project coordinator, landscape designer and chief bottle washer. He’s not the only one.

Each Monday between about 8 a.m. and noon, Highlands men take on whatever construction and landscaping projects are scheduled that week. Guys like Skip Schultz and Bernie Lee draw on their decades of experience as an electrician and weekend handyman, respectively, to get the job done. Men who can’t physically help out lend their moral support. Bill Setton, who’s in his mid-80s, sits on his campstool to clean out trench lines with a small shovel. He digs out one stretch of dirt, moves his stool, and keeps going.

Volunteers have helped move 10 tons of boulders in an hour and a half, mostly by hand, laid 600 feet of sidewalk, yanked out old olive trees and replaced them with Desert Museum Palo Verdes. Residents have contributed saguaro cacti as well as cuttings from their existing cacti and other desert flora.

“(On work days), the place looks like an anthill with everyone moving things and decorating,” said Behrendsen. “It’s amazing what we can accomplish in four hours.”

And the community likes what it sees.

“His vision is awesome,” said Linc Keilman, president of the Highlands’ board of directors. “Everyone loves it. Bill has set nothing on paper but it’s coming along great. It keeps things flexible.”

Highlands’ women are involved, too. The ladies prepare lunch for the workers each Monday, usually refusing offers from the board to be reimbursed for their costs. The weekly lunches are their contribution, they say.

Connie Jarvensivu and Carol Behrendsen, Bill’s wife, plan the menus. The multitude of ladies cook their part of the meals at home, and then bring the food to the clubhouse to serve.

“We try for easy, low-budget home-cooking,” said Carol. “We’ve served Italian sausage and baked beans, and lasagna and salad. The men can choose between two desserts but they always choose both,” she added with a pleasant laugh.

The months-long project has made neighbors from residents and friends from neighbors.

“There is such camaraderie and lots of social networking now,” Carol noted.

By the end of this month, the neighbors expect to finish the project but their new friendships will go on.

“All of us are enjoying each others’ company and the work,” said Bill.

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