The first thing they did was find the fence. Under overgrown bushes, behind waist-high weeds, the metal gate had been buried for years.
Volunteers unearthed it Wednesday morning, while they cleared the corner lot around Phyllis Gallant's mobile home.
"Oh, I'm so embarrassed," said Gallant, 87. "This place used to be so nice. I had a garden, with roses and everything. I used to love being out here with the children and grandchildren."
She once was so proud of her trailer, the lawn she landscaped, the wide walkway and that screened porch her husband built.
"After he died, everything just got away from me," she told Janet Stringfellow of the Volunteers of America of Florida. "Every morning, I would say, 'Oh, I've got to take care of that yard, the porch, the roof.' But I'm too old to do much anymore. And I can't afford to hire anyone. It's been nine years since I lost Walter and this place has been falling apart ever since."
Sitting on a swing, in the shade of a live oak, the World War II Navy veteran watched 18 strangers rebuilding her battered house. Women weeded. Men sawed new steps. Inside, a team from Home Depot measured the living room for a wooden floor.
"I can't believe all these folks came out," said Gallant, wiping her eyes.
She hadn't asked for help. Someone sent a stranger to her, to see what she needed. She was ashamed, she said, for people to see how her family was living.
But she showed the volunteer coordinator the leaking ceiling, the broken stairs and moldy shag carpet that had been yellow when she bought the mobile home in 1971.
She let him look at every room. Except hers.
Her first home was in Maine, where her dad rented a two-bedroom barracks built during World War I. After high school, when World War II was raging, she took a job as an electrician's assistant at a shipyard. Every night, she cried herself to sleep "worrying about all those poor boys overseas."
"I know it sounds silly. But I thought if they had to go serve, I should, too," she said. She was 19 in 1945 when her father finally let her join the Navy.
She wanted to go to Europe, or at least Hawaii. "But unless you were a nurse, they didn't let girls go there then," she said. She spent three years stateside, working in offices.
Back in Maine, she met an Army vet named Walter, who took her to the circus. They got married, adopted a boy, David, and a girl they named Barbara.
In 1958 the family moved to Florida and rented a trailer off Hillsborough Avenue. Gallant walked to work at an auto parts store. When she got hit by a car, she used the settlement to buy her first home: a shiny blue single-wide that she planted on this corner lot in Seffner.
"Oh, it was so beautiful back then," remembers Barbara, 57.
Gallant's husband added a shed, planters, striped awnings. In that 930-square-foot single-wide they watched their children grow up and their great-granddaughter toddle across the grass.
Then, after Gallant's husband had a stroke, she watched her home begin to deteriorate.
Her son died in January. Her daughter, and her daughter's 30-year-old son, Harold, live with her but can't help much. Barbara suffered an aneurysm and can't work. Harold has seizures and only works part time at McDonald's. They live off her pension: $900 a month. "We don't go out much," she said. "This house is pretty much our whole world."
Her only outings are the second Saturday of each month, when she drives to Brandon to meet "the girls" from WAVES: Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, mostly World War II Navy vets.
"There aren't too many of us left," said Gallant. "But my friend Cathy has come out here to the house. She's the one who told the volunteers about me."
The workers didn't know much about Gallant, except that she was a veteran. Some work at the Disney Store in International Plaza; others work at Home Depot, which partnered with Volunteers of America last year to repair veterans' homes. Gallant's is their 12th project.
Seven of the volunteers were active-duty Navy from MacDill Air Force Base, eager to help one of their own. "I hope to do more," said Jason Montgomery, 32, who served four tours in the Middle East and was painting the eaves.
By 1 p.m., Gallant's yard was clean, the picket fence whitewashed, the mobile home repainted — inside and out. New pavers formed a level walkway. The new stairs had a handrail.
"Oh, I'm so grateful," Gallant said, sinking into a flowered couch on the porch. "And isn't that something, all these Navy boys come to help?"
Someone brought her a slice of pizza. As she ate, she watched Montgomery turn the shutters from mustard to mint green. Then a woman walked up and said, "I'm wondering about that back bedroom" — the one Gallant wouldn't let anyone see. Nina Stroade of Home Depot had seen a rusty air conditioner dangling from the window.
"Do you want a new A/C?"
Gallant clasped her chest.
"Oh, that would be so nice." Her air conditioning hadn't worked for six summers.