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Program Helps Needy Homeowners

Churches, businesses fix up old homes.

Every year at about this time, Springfield resident Marie Munson rallies her church, John Calvin Presbyterian, to start thinking about the last weekend of April next year. Munson is a member of the Annandale Christian Community for Action (ACCA), an ecumenical group of area churches, which spends the last weekend of every April fixing up homes for needy homeowners.

Munson's rallying is not limited to her own congregation, however. She also sends out letters to the clergy and to the previous volunteers of all the ACCA member churches.

"I'm the one who gets up and beats the drum and gets people interested," she said.

MUNSON AND FELLOW volunteers from churches and businesses throughout the region participate in a program called “Rebuilding Together,” which until recently was known as “Christmas in April.” The program is run by the Robert Pierre Johnson Housing Development Corp. (RPJ Housing), an area nonprofit, which also operates a year-round regional program, Hearts and Hammers, which fixes up homes for low-income people.

To participate in the program, homeowners must live in the home and intend to stay there for the next two years, according to Patricia Dennis, the deputy director of RPJ Housing. Their income must also not exceed 50 percent of the area median income, she added.

"We typically serve people who are elderly or disabled," said Dennis. Many of the projects center around accessibility. Volunteers will install grab bars or ramps to make the homes safer. They can also help with yard work, painting, drywall, plumbing, electrical wiring or any other work that needs to be done. Many of the volunteers are professionals who know how to do the more complicated home repair work.

The churches or businesses who sponsor Rebuilding Together have to donate $2,000 to help cover the cost of the materials. "Some of the churches feel it's such a good experience that they plan for it," said Munson. "They budget for it."

"Some of the churches will do some kind of action to raise money at the time," she added.

GROUPS ALSO designate a team leader who can take charge of a house project. For instance, last year's team leader from John Calvin Presbyterian was a shop teacher at a local high school.

Lee District Supervisor Dana Kauffman (D) has also served as team leader a couple times over the years, putting his woodworking skills to use.

"Woodworking is my release from the political world," he said. "It's often much easier to work with wood than with people."

"I've always found it to be a well-run program and certainly a vitally-needed augmentation of our county service efforts," he added. "We have to rely on our nonprofit partners for helping us, particularly in these difficult times."

Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross (D) also showed up at a work site in 1996 in work clothes with work gloves and a pair of clippers but found that there was not much for her to do.

"I realized I was getting in the way," she said. "I don't show up to work anymore. I show up to encourage and thank the volunteers and also talk to the homeowners."

Last year, the Rebuilding Together Program fixed up 85 to 100 homes in Fairfax and Arlington counties, thanks to the work of 3,200 volunteers. The Hearts and Hammers program uses 700 volunteers to work on 35 to 45 houses throughout the year.

"We're a facilitator," said Dennis. "It used to be that your neighbor would come out to your house and help you out, and that doesn't happen anymore."

"It takes a year to plan and a day to happen," she added.

Munson and her fellow ACCA volunteers first heard about the program in 1990. They got 15 people together and fixed up one house.

"And it was such a good experience that the next year we had enough volunteers and money to do two houses, and the next year we did three," she said.

Since then, ACCA has worked on 73 homes and raised about $80,000 for the program, Munson said.

"The beauty of this is because there's so little red tape. We look for houses, and we get people within ACCA," she said.

"We're lucky there's a lot of talent in the community," she added. "We meet a lot of very nice people, and it makes us appreciate what we have."