In 2002, she was sidelined by the chemo and radiation she needed after being diagnosed with sarcoma (a type of soft tissue cancer). But the Wayland, Mass., married mom of three soon discovered "angels were fluttering into my house” to handle chores.
Without hesitation, family friends and neighbors had jumped in, raising their hands to cook, clean and shuttle kids to soccer practice.
"I was touched by how the community embraced us," says Washek, 47.
To pay their kindness forward, Washek teamed up with her friend Jean Seiden (who later died of cancer in 2006) to found what became the Neighbor Brigade, a volunteer network that started as a 40-person email chain.
Now 3,300 members strong in communities around the state, the group helps families in crisis, including Nick Panzeri, 39, of Billerica, Mass.
While recovering from brain tumor surgery, Panzeri accepted rides from dozens of strangers to his cognitive therapy sessions.
"I feel so much less alone," says his wife, Sara.
So does Brianna Anthony, whose family had meals delivered to them after losing their Natick, Mass., home in a fire. "These people," she says, "really care."
Washek recently worked through a brief course of treatment for a cancer recurrence, and the Neighbor Brigade helped her, providing her family with meals. And she's still working on her cause, fielding queries from people from Massachusetts, New England and beyond who want to launch their own Neighbor Brigades.
Says Washek, "People really want to get involved."
Know a hero? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more inspiring stories, read the latest issue of PEOPLE magazine