EMMA ROUTLEY/CHRONICLE PHOTO

Dawn Melhert of Springfield worked with her father, a master woodworker, to create positive signs during the pandemic.

SPRINGFIELD – At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dawn Melhert began making signs to help herself cope, but mainly to spread encouragement to others. Her master woodworker dad, Jesse Barnhart, furnished wood that had been stacked in the family’s backyard for over 20 years. Over the course of the pandemic, the pair went on a sign-making roll. Melhert, 43, would make about six signs per day, using stencils and sharpies to decorate the wood with inspirational quotes. Next, her dad would hang the signs on the fence in her front yard for passers-by to take for free. 

“When the virus broke, I was noticing that there was a pull that could spiral people down in the direction of fear. I felt that making signs was an opportunity to connect people,” Melhert said. 

Within the first week of displaying an array of signs that read quotes such as, “Forgive” and “The time for love is now,” people were knocking on Melhert’s door to talk prices. To their surprise, she’d say, “If you like them, please help yourself.” People were coming to her door so often that Melhert eventually put out a box where they could fill out custom requests. She has since received thank you notes and some donations in the box. Plus, some unexpected opportunities arose, as she was commissioned to make 70 signs for a woman’s fence and even made name plates for another woman’s horses.

“Oh, it just became such a lovely, unexpected thing,” Melhert said. 

Her signs have also brought her lielong friendships, such as fellow Springfield resident and kindness advocate Aloha Heart. Heart, 77, said that the signs filled her own heart with so much warmth that she had to know the woman behind them. 

“Dawn’s magnificent spirit shines through the signs that she posts daily on the fence by her house,” said Heart. “I have stood in awe as I read what she has written and that she gives so graciously to whoever comes by and chooses to take one or even more than that. Dawn’s life has blessed me tremendously.” 

EMMA ROUTLEY/THE CHRONICLE

Melhert’s first instinct, however, was that no one would want her signs, much less be so moved by them. In 2013, she made a hobby of collecting quotes to deal with the grief when her mom passed away from a heart attack. Although Melhert didn’t believe herself to have her mom’s “crafter” gene, she wanted to do something with all of the quotes that were bringing her comfort. So, she started making signs. She had some friends talk her into trying to open an Etsy shop and another friend who asked if they could sell them in a boutique, but the signs never gained any traction. 

“In the beginning years, the signs were awful. But I practiced a lot,” recalled Melhert. “I just thought, this is something that I like to do. I was never into selling them in the first place.” 

When the pandemic hit, it was her dad who pushed her to put her signs into the community for free. He told her, “It’s not going to hurt anything and it’s worth a try to spread some cheer. If people start throwing eggs, we won’t keep doing it.” Melhert has Crohn’s disease, and she and her husband, Jeremy Melhert, have been living with her dad since her mom’s sudden death. While making signs helped her grieve her mom and spread kindness to strangers, it also brought Melhert closer to her dad. 

However, tragedy struck in late-February when Melhert’s dad became suddenly ill with paraneoplastic syndrome. The rare disorder attacked Barnhart’s brain, causing him to have such severe seizures that he was placed under palliative sedation. He passed away only a couple of weeks after his illness started. At one point in the hospital, Melhert had gone to the restroom when Barnhart said to her husband, “You have to keep making the wood for Dawn. She has to keep making these signs.” 

And so she has. Melhert akes up around 3 a.m. every day to make signs so that she can get them hung outside before the day starts. It takes her roughly 30 minutes to an hour to make one sign, depending on both the font size and the length of the quote. Since her dad passed, she’s been making only three per day, as she’s trying to not go through the boards of wood he cleaned up and rounded off for her too quickly. On a typical day, there’s anywhere from 3-10 signs hanging on her front fence. 

“Whenever I don’t end up having time to make signs, it hangs in my mind,” said Melhert.

To this day, Melhert has done 1,241 different quotes and has made a countless number of signs. She will continue to make and put out signs as long as she can. Her signs not only inspire those who walk past her house, but the process of making them is healing and helps her feel closer to those she’s lost. 

“I don’t know if people expect or wait for them, but in a weird way, it continues to bring me peace,” said Melhert. “And it makes me think of my dad.”