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Rebuilding Homes, Dreams

Over 2,000 volunteers will work on 60-70 homes during this year’s Rebuilding Together weekend.

For over 25 years, RPJ Housing of Arlington has organized and funded volunteer efforts that make repairs to homes owned by single parents, the disabled, senior citizens and others who cannot afford to maintain their home’s safety.

One of their major undertakings, Rebuilding Together, is scheduled for April 30 of this year, and volunteers and team captains will find out this week their assignments for this year’s remodeling blitz.

“RPJ Housing deals with a wide array of affordable housing issues in the Washington metropolitan area,” said Patti Dennis, housing director for RPJ Housing. “Each year, we’ll go out and find properties owned by low income homeowners and see what kind of repairs need to be done in order to keep people in their homes, in safe, warm conditions for as long as possible.”

In the case of homeowners who are wheelchair users or have special accessibility needs, she said, grab bars are installed in bathrooms, near showers and toilets, doorways are widened to allow for easier movement from room to room, ramps are installed coming up to the home, “anything that can be done to make the home safer,” she said.

“One in four people will be injured in their own homes,” Dennis said. “We try to make simple alterations to prevent accidents.”

Repair work, which may also involve anything from putting on a new roof or doing some yard maintenance work to securing the floor in a room or repainting a room or the whole house, is all done by volunteers, mainly from church or other civic groups.

“We have between 60 and 70 volunteer groups, each group varies between 20 and 80 people per group, so we average about 2,200 people per session,” Dennis said.

With its non-profit status, RPJ is able to secure donations of materials for the volunteers to use to make the repairs, which are done at no cost to the homeowners.

“The groups of volunteers pay a sponsorship fee for the option to volunteer for this weekend which helps to cover administration fees,” she said. “The rest of the money goes to supplies, hardware, port-a-potties and other things we need for the work sites.”

VOLUNTEERS COME in all ages, shapes, sizes and skill levels, she said. “I think our age range this year is between 14 and 80 years old,” Dennis said with a laugh. “They go out and work and they love every minute of it.”

As if the good deeds weren’t enough in and of themselves, RPJ Housing focuses on the bigger picture.

“Since 1988 when I started here, I think I’ve leveraged between $6 million and $8 million in volunteer labor alone, not counting supplies,” she said. “Plus, by doing this repair work, we’re not only helping out the homeowners but the community as well. If a house is deteriorating, it’s demolished and a bigger home comes in, which makes it harder for the affordable housing units to sell or be maintained. If the house is repaired the neighborhood remains affordable.”

One of the volunteer groups for this year is the Giving Circle of Hope from Reston.

“The Giving Circle started because we were always doing volunteer work in schools and churches so we decided to make an organization,” said Patty Gehring, service coordinator.

Members can contribute in one of three ways: by offering a $1 per day contribution to fund service projects; volunteering to perform the service projects at least once a month, or participating in both, she said.

“My husband used to work for RPJ Housing and I found out about Rebuilding Together through him and it sounded like a good project for us,” Gehring said.

This will be the second year the Giving Circle participates in the remodeling weekend, she said.

“What we’ve tried to do, in our philosophy, is to stick with one-day projects, and half to three-quarters of those projects are piggy-backed onto another larger program,” she said. “We like to help other people in need.”

Working on a single-day project also feels like more of an accomplishment, she said.

“There are so many organizations that are small and so appreciative of any help we can give them,” she said. “We feel we make a difference and more of an impact than if we were working with a larger group.”

BRYAN DEGEE, co-owner of a construction and remodeling company in Vienna and team captain for a group of volunteers from Oakton United Methodist Church, looks at his volunteer work with Rebuilding Together as a way to give back using his skills.

“In some cases, we start working on the project a month before the rebuilding day,” he said, because some houses will need extensive preparation work before the one-day job can be completed in a 12- to 14-hour period.

“Typically, we’ll get our assignment, meet with the homeowner to see what needs to be done, organize our volunteers and in some cases we’ll do some prep work the weekend before,” he said. “You can’t put up drywall, seal, sand and paint it all in one day, it’s impossible.”

This will be Degee’s third year participating in Rebuilding Together, a project that gets better every year, he said.

“This is what I do for a living and it’s easy to help people,” he said. “Nothing else I do gives me as much fulfillment as projects like this.”

While most of his team will come from Oakton Methodist Church, Degee said he has called on some of his subcontractors from his business in the past to help with some of the more specialized tasks.

“Yeah, I draft people in sometimes,” he chuckled. “They all know if I need help, they’ll be getting a call.”

Last year, Degee and his team worked on Frank Noussis’ house.

Noussis received spinal cord injuries in a car crash five years ago, which left him a wheelchair user, but he was determined to remain as independent as possible.

“I found out about Rebuilding Together through a counselor at the Independence Center, Mr. Ed McEntee,” Noussis said. “He basically enrolled me in the program and took care of everything on that end, he knew I needed help.”

Before, Noussis was unable to shower in his home, which had not been modified after his injury, and had to go the a nearby rehabilitation hospital to use their facilities.

“The people came in and stayed for the whole day, they basically reconstructed my entire bathroom,” he said.

“At Frank’s house, none of the doorways were big enough, so we widened the doorway to the bedroom so he could wheel right in,” Degee said. “We also gutted the bathroom pretty much, we took out the tub, put in a roll-in shower so he could go in in his wheelchair, and installed a toilevator to allow him to move from the chair without problems,” he said.

“I was very fortunate,” Noussis said of his repairs. “It’s like a night and day difference. It’s something I needed, especially with going back to the work force and it allowed me to stay independent. I couldn’t be more thankful.”

Noussis has told friends about the program and would encourage others with spinal injuries to look into it as well.

“Many people with spinal cord injuries aren’t as mobile as I am and we all need to make accommodations for things, but we still have to perform daily routines or find someone to do it for us,” he said. “This is a great group of people and it meant a whole lot to me, what they did.”

MOST OF THE PUBLICITY for RPJ Housing goes out through the mail inside property tax waiver forms, Dennis said. “We’ve been doing this since 1988 and people still don’t know about us.”

Further complicating the situation is the pride of some homeowners of needing to accept a little outside help.

“We’re really trying to bridge the gap and get them to trust us,” she said. “One woman was terrified because she had hired someone to do repair work and was scammed out of $80,000 and her property was ruined.”

RPJ Housing recently received a grant from Capital One that allowed Dennis to hire another full-time staff person in charge of site inspection and evaluation both before and after a project is completed.

“A lot of people or youth groups will come into the area to do mission work but will also want to do some sightseeing, so now they can call our office and our new staff person can help them find a project and get them started with supplies,” she said, through their Hearts and Hammers project, a year-round repair initiative that focuses more on smaller repair and maintenance jobs.

Still needed for this year’s workday on April 30 are skilled volunteers, she said.

“We need people who are trained in construction work, who know a specific trade,’ she said.

Occupational therapists are also in need, she said, because they can take into consideration how people function and relate to their homes.

“If you get a handyperson volunteer, they’ll know where a stud is in a wall,” she said. “An occupational therapist knows where to put a grab bar by a toilet for a person who is 5 foot 1 and where to put one for a person who’s over 6 feet tall. That makes a huge difference in making a home safer.”