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Connections keep the lights on

For Andrew and Patricia Van Alstine, it was a matter of life and death.

She needed electricity for her oxygen machine; he needed it for his pacemaker. But the wiring in their two-story Superior home was considered unsafe.

Thanks to a web of community connections, their wiring issues were addressed days before Christmas.

The problem came to light when Superior Water, Light and Power employees attempted to change the home's meter. They felt the wiring was too dangerous to touch and called the city's building inspection department, according to Chief Building Inspector Peter Kruit. Inspectors agreed it needed to be upgraded.

That came as a surprise to the Van Alstines, who have lived in the home on North 18th Street for 56 years.

"We never had any problems," said Andrew Van Alstine, a U.S. Air Force veteran.

He's nearly 80; his wife is 76, and the pair live on a fixed income. The estimated $2,400 needed for the electrical work was out of their reach.

Kruit helped connect the Van Alstines to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and things started happening — fast.

Dean Hecht is a member of both the society and United Presbyterian Church. He contacted the electrician who wired the church building, Jeff Saeland, and gave asked for his help.

An employee of Benson Electric Company and member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 242, Saeland offered to donate his time.

"I thought it was a good idea to give these people a hand, especially right before the holidays," he said.

Fellow union electrician Eric Johnson also helped. Viking Electric Supply donated the pricier items; Benson Electric paid for the building permit and provided other supplies.

"If we've got a guy that volunteers, whether it's for church or football, we support them," by providing materials or lending out vehicles and equipment, said Blair Mahan, who owns Benson Electric with his wife, Anna.

With about 70 employees, Mahan said, "This kind of thing happens all the time."

St. Vincent volunteers provided manpower to clean out the work area and a shelf for the microwave, which was able to move from the dining room into the kitchen after the wiring project was completed.

Saeland had never seen a house wired the way this one was — an entire two-story building on one 30-amp fuse. He felt it was a fire hazard.

"It was fused way too high for the wire size," Saeland said.

The electrician put in new 100-amp service, including new grounding, panel, breakers, two circuits and a new outlet. He put a housing around wires leading to a lamp on the porch, and the meter was moved to the home's exterior.

For the Van Alstines, who married and moved to Superior in 1961, the help was a blessing.

"Saint Vincent's did a wonderful job," Patricia Van Alstine said. "It's just amazing how fast they came to help."

When the couple's pipes froze Dec. 23, a day after the wiring project was complete, they called St. Vincent de Paul again. As volunteers from the society were pulling up with jugs of water, the pipes cleared and water started running.

The Van Alstines thanked everyone who helped keep the lights on at the home they've lived in for more than 50 years.

"In my case it's the difference between breathing or not," said Patricia Van Alstine, who cooked for local restaurants for 40 years and once was the sole female employee of a Superior siding company.

Andrew Van Alstine, a retired boilermaker, found a connection with Saeland during the project.

"Andrew worked probably 30 years at (Fraser) shipyards with my uncle," the electrician said. "Small world."

He credited Hecht for reaching out and keeping in close touch with everyone involved, and the businesses for their donations.

"It was a joint thing; everybody gets the credit," Saeland said.

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul offers tangible assistance to those in need on a person-to-person basis, ranging from bus passes, rental assistance and hotel stays for the displaced to clothing, food, furniture and more.

The society's Superior office receives calls for help from about 1,200 households a year. To request help or volunteer, visit or call (715) 398-4039.