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Hero, on bike or off

Matthew Nalywaiko of Santa Rosa, volunteer director of the nonprofit group Serve a Little, is working to raise money to build a school in a Haitian village. He has cycled in a series of fundraising events, and in September, Serve a Little is sponsoring its own ride to aid the Haiti project. (JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat)

Matthew Nalywaiko of Santa Rosa, volunteer director of the nonprofit group Serve a Little, is working to raise money to build a school in a Haitian village. He has cycled in a series of fundraising events, and in September, Serve a Little is sponsoring its own ride to aid the Haiti project. (JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat)

By ROBERT DIGITALE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Matthew Nalywaiko says every community has needs, but also possesses “the ability to meet those needs.”

Nalywaiko is the volunteer director of Serve a Little, a 4-year-old group that encourages people to help those in need, especially single moms.

Help could mean fixing a toilet or replacing a light switch. About 75 percent of the group’s work involves repairing and maintaining cars.

A few local mechanics donate their time to fix the women’s vehicles. The clients often are referred by social service agencies. Serve a Little may be the county’s only nonprofit that repairs cars, Nalywaiko said.

“Our main purpose is empowering the working single moms to keep going and to let them know they’re not alone,” he said.

Serve a Little has helped more than 250 families in nearly four years, he said. Over that time more than 100 people have volunteered to help others.

Nalywaiko, 31, a videographer, newlywed and graduate of Rohnert Park’s Rancho Cotate High, was one of 10 people honored this spring at the Real Heroes Breakfast sponsored by the American Red Cross of Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake Counties. He was selected from among 10 other nominees in the category of adult humanitarians, said Morna Fitterer, a Red Cross volunteer who helps manage the awards program.

In presenting Nalywaiko’s award, Siri Nelson, a Sutter hospital administrator, told the breakfast crowd of more than 400 people: “Stories like Matthew’s renew my hope in the human race.”

Nalywaiko, who lives in Santa Rosa with his bride of eight months, Amanda, set his sights this summer on raising money for a new project: building a school for a village in Haiti.

He has raised funds by riding a series of 200-mile bicycle rides, often with his friend, Dan Sartin of Santa Rosa. The rides include the Santa Rosa Cycling Club’s mountainous Terrible Two, which Nalywaiko finished in June in 15 hours, 51 minutes.

Now Serve a Little is sponsoring its own Sept. 21 ride in the county. It’s all part of the effort to raise $80,000 needed to build a school in the village of Sable Le Gras, Haiti. Nalywaiko calls the project “80 for Haiti.”

The 80-mile ride, known as “Butt, Sweat and Gears,” already is on track to bring in $20,000, he said. For more information, go to buttsweatandgears.com.

Serve a Little previously has raised $30,000 for the school. Using those funds, Nalywaiko and Sartin plan to journey Friday to Haiti for a week to help in the construction of the building’s foundation.

He said he first became drawn to the island nation after its devastating 7.0 earthquake in January 2010. That year his brother, Jonathan Nalywaiko, a church pastor, put him in contact with a Haitian pastor who “knows of a village that really needs a school.”

The village’s children now have to cross a river to reach the nearest school, Nalywaiko said, and children have drowned while trying to make the crossing.

Nalywaiko’s parents got him started as a child serving others. That included handing out clothes and sandwiches to the homeless in San Francisco and building homes for families in Mexico. Some of his volunteer efforts were part of church or church-related groups.

For those who don’t feel up for an 80-mile bike ride, Nalywaiko said people can make a “huge difference” by signing up at the group’s website, servealittle.org, to donate $5 a month. The funds will help pay the group’s bills and expand the number of people who can be served, he said.

Sartin, his friend and cycling partner, said Nalywaiko is passionate about serving.

“He’s very aware of the needs of others,” Sartin said. “He sees a need and he finds a way to help.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com.