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Angels in popular art are often depicted as delicate creatures swooping down on soft wings of mercy.

But for dozens of single moms in Sonoma County, their prayers are answered by everyday super-heroes who drive up in a truck wearing work clothes and lugging a tool box.

They might fix a stopped-up drain pipe or repair a faulty electrical wire, replace a leaky faucet, mow weeds or change a broken lock.

They are a largely male army of professional tradesmen, mechanics and skilled home handymen, many husbands and fathers themselves who, through a local non-profit called Serve A Little, tackle the fix-it lists of struggling single moms and military wives.

"Even if I had a screw or a drill I wouldn't know what to do," admitted Jessica Birrer, 32, who worried her toddler daughter might tumble over her third-floor Santa Rosa apartment balcony until Serve A Little volunteers came by with their power tools to affix a Plexiglas barrier. It was a little thing, but a grateful Birrer knows the child-proofing could be a lifesaver.

The free service is the brainchild of Matthew Nalywaiko, a 30-year-old Rohnert Park man who, looking for a meaningful calling, saw a need and set out to fill it.

"We just connect the dots. We're the connection point between the people who need help and people who want to help," said Nalywaiko, whose search for purpose after graduating from Rancho Cotate High School took him to poor countries like India and Mexico, where he worked in orphanages and met young girls sold into the sex trade.

He was profoundly moved. With the support of his church, Redwood Covenant in Santa Rosa, Nalywaiko went to film school in Hawaii, spent a year in L.A. perfecting his editing skills and began making short films for human-services organizations to raise awareness for their causes, all while making a living in construction. But something still was missing.

"I didn't really feel like it was what I was supposed to do," he said over coffee at a noisy Rohnert Park coffee shop where, as the unpaid head of an agency without an office, he sometimes meets with his board.

He remembers the Tuesday morning in September 2009 when the inspiration came to him to match regular guys who wanted to volunteer with single moms who needed a hand. It quickly took off. Serve A Little currently has a roster of some 80 volunteers and has helped out some 200 families in Sonoma County.

It operates under the non-profit umbrella of Community Builders Group, a larger network of contractors who organized after participating in a TV Extreme Home Makeover project for a Penngrove family. While Community Builders does bigger jobs for non-profits and families, Serve A Little fills the small, single-day jobs that fall through the charity cracks.

There was the mom whose front door lock was broken.

"She woke up one night to some drunk guy standing over her kid's crib," he recalled. "It took us five minutes to come in and fix it."

While there, they noticed her stove didn't work, she needed a bigger refrigerator and had a broken window. They returned and fixed it all.

There was the mother and son who both are autistic, living in a house with two bathrooms, neither of which worked. And there was the mom who was thrilled to get a light switch fixed. She had jury-rigged it on with a clothes pin. When she came home from work, not only were her fixtures working, but general contractor Jeff Sutton and a cohort had built her a picket fence — a dream fulfilled.

"It's just so rewarding to put a smile on somebody's face," said Sutton, noting that a number of the women said it restored their faith in men after being hurt and taken advantage of by the wrong guys.

Serve A Little has mechanics who fix cars and has even procured a few cars for moms who don't have them. Seeking specifically to help low-income working moms or those trying to lift themselves up by going to school, they have gotten referrals from churches, Catholic Charities and a social services agency serving The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria in Rohnert Park.

Nalywaiko supports himself working half-time doing video work for the Santa Rosa company VisiQuate, whose CEO Brian Robertson supports the cause, including the newest Serve A Little project, building a school in Haiti.

He felt drawn to help Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, after 2010's catastrophic earthquake. Working with John Wanger, a civil engineer from Santa Rosa, Nalywaiko located a village where 25 kids die each year crossing a treacherous river to school. They have raised a quarter of the $80,000 it will cost to build them a new, closer school, using local labor to boost the impoverished economy. They hope to start work this summer.

Haitians live with such intransigent misery that many knowingly gamble their children's lives on the hope that an education is the path out of poverty.

Nalywaiko laments that many well-meaning people spend a lot going to poor places to do hands-on service work.

It's much better, he said, to put that money into programs that provide local jobs, part of a paradigm shift he's leading with Serve A Little.

(You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com)

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