On the night patrol

By NATHAN HELLMAN Baker City Herald September 02, 2009 12:00 am

Sandra Wood, 72, helps keep Haines safe with Neighborhood Watch

It’s 11 p.m. on a Saturday in the small town of Haines.

The vast majority of the community’s 435 residents are nestled in bed or maybe catching the first few minutes of the late news broadcast before stumbling off to the warmth of blankets and bed sheets.

Little life exists here at such an hour. The streets are quiet and businesses are closed. At nearby farms there might be the occasional sounds of livestock shuffling and stirring. 

But if there is even the faintest pulse beyond that, count on Sandra Wood to sniff it out.

With her two headlights leading the way, the no-nonsense, put-up-with-nothing 72-year-old makes her rounds.

She starts on the east side of town, driving down side streets and then trolling through thoroughfares.

Along the way she rolls down alleys in her black 1988 Mazda pickup and stops by the local park for a gander at its goings on.

Wood is not in the business of taking late-night joy rides. She is keeping Haines safe by patrolling for the town’s Neighborhood Watch.

“I’m looking for anything out of the ordinary,” she explains. “By now, I know whose rig is parked in front of whose house. And if I see anything out of place, I take down the license plate number.”

If Haines were a puzzle, Wood could piece it together without glancing at the picture on the box.

This is because she has lived in the community for 26 years, but more importantly it’s due to her dozen years of involvement with Neighborhood Watch.

And while Wood may have established the program in Haines, it sort of found her, too.

As a member of the City Council, Wood remembers hearing deputy Tim Fisher give a presentation at a meeting in 1997. Fisher spoke about the need for a neighborhood-based supervision program to assist in quelling vandalism, theft and drug-related crimes.

Spurred by the presentation, Mayor Gary Hale became intent on implementing such a supervisory program.

But no councilors were volunteering to spearhead the effort, so he promptly turned to Wood and said, “It’s yours.”

She embraced the idea with open arms.

 “I was tickled pink to do it,” she said.

A series of preliminary meetings followed as Wood attempted to spread the word about the budding program in the hope of finding a select few willing to commit themselves to making it work.

Shortly after, Wood said, a group of 10 to 12 Haines residents formed the initial Neighborhood Watch group.

It was decided that the town — less than a square mile in area — would be divided into four sections to patrol.

But it was quickly discovered that would be an ineffective plan.

“If you divide it into sections, each section will take five minutes,” Wood said. “So we started patrolling the whole town.”

Each person patrols for about an hour one night a week.

Neighborhood Watch stuck with this revised plan for the next 12 years and, as a result, Haines is a safer, cleaner place.

“Local citizens credit Sandra for changing the landscape in the Haines community,” writes Baker County Sheriff Mitch Southwick in an award nomination. “No longer is it thought of as a drug community, but rather a good, safe area to live and work.”

Longtime Haines resident Evelyne Fisher has certainly felt safer with Wood and the others involved with Neighborhood Watch out roaming the streets.

“I’m really glad to see her go by,” says Fisher, who originally signed up to help Neighborhood Watch but had to stop after a few patrols due to health reasons. “And if there is a problem, I would know who to call.”

Fisher has placed a few calls to Wood, alerting her to potential problems. She has been satisfied with the response.

“And when I do, they look right into it,” she says.  

However, this much-improved Haines that Fisher and others enjoy came only after years of hard work for Wood and the other members of Neighborhood Watch, to which she gives many kudos.

It wasn’t necessarily an effortless process for this group of citizens, and there has been a lot of street pounding along the way. 

The first thing anyone who encounters Wood on the street should know is that she is tough. The second thing is she’s persistent.

One local discovered this several years ago when he demanded that she stop passing through “his” alley located behind the town’s businesses.

Wood informed “the drugee,” as she calls him, that this would not be happening. And when she continued to travel through this alley and others, he acted.

The man proceeded to chase Wood in his car all around Haines that night.

It’s too bad he wasn’t aware of the third thing anyone who crosses her path should know.

“I’m not intimidated really easily,” Wood says. “So I used his language on him.”

While Wood has maintained good relations with the local police over the years, she can almost count the number of times she has called them on her fingers.

This was one of those times.

“When I call the law, they know it’s something serious,” Wood says.

Local authorities tended to the situation and Wood received a surprising gesture later in the night.

Even though Wood describes the man as being “higher than a kite” she reveals that he pulled up next to her and gave an apology. Apparently his wife voiced her insistence to do so, and Wood remembers the apology quite well.

Another instance she vividly recalls is being honored with the Oregon State Sheriff’s Association Meritorious Service Award in Bend this past December.

Southwick nominated her for the award, writing, “Sandra Wood has spent hundreds of hours patrolling the City of Haines ... She is also always willing to go to other communities to talk to them about how the Haines Neighborhood Watch group has been successful and she shares how they can make a difference in their own community.”

For Wood, it was an honor.

“It was a great trip. They treated me like a queen,” she says, before tipping her head back and running her hands through her short gray hair. “I was amazed. I was speechless.”

But even after being awarded with such a prestigious honor, it has been all business in the months following the ceremony.

Every night someone must patrol the town of Haines. Wood is scheduled for two nights a week, following her 11 p.m. routine on Fridays and Saturdays.

And if someone is sick or slated to be out of town, she reacts like a good leader should: She picks up the slack, patrolling up to four or five nights a week if it is necessary.

 While there are other ways Wood could be spending her time at 11 p.m. — like perhaps sleeping — it would not be right to feel sorry for her.

This is because even though Wood has paid for every penny of her gas over the past 12 years, with the only exception being a $44 tank she still feels guilty about, she gets something out of being on patrol.

Whether it’s running some teenagers off the school grounds late at night or discovering a rig that is out of place, it’s a kind of a soothing process with one goal.

“It’s kind of like therapy,” she says. “That’s what the Neighborhood Watch is all about — it’s all about making the community feel safe.”

And as long as “The Warden,” as her friend Mary Jane Guyer calls her, is on patrol, Haines should remain that way.

Which should be for quite a while.

“I’ll probably continue until I’m in a wheelchair,” Wood says with a slight chuckle. “And I’ll probably do it then, going up and down the street in my wheelchair.”