For many years, the national nonprofit Rebuilding Together concentrated its energy on one big service day, when it would mobilize large groups of volunteers to rehabilitate the homes of low-income homeowners.
This year, about 40,000 volunteers nationwide worked on projects in April on National Rebuilding Day, its signature event. It was an impressive effort drawing attention to the need for repairing and improving existing houses so that residents, many of them elderly, can stay in their homes.
But RT’s national staff and leaders of the local affiliate, Rebuilding Together Arlington/Falls Church/Fairfax (RT-AFF), realized several years ago that there was a need for help throughout the year.
“We were primarily focused on that one big day,” said Don Ryan, a longtime advocate of healthy housing who served on the RT-AFF board. “We were missing a real need among our clients. In some cases, it was urgent, even if the repairs were limited.”
Ryan helped launch RT Express, which mobilizes small teams — usually about four people — tackling repairs that can be accomplished in less than a day. They focus on immediate health and safety benefits, such as grab bars and double railings on stairs, and fixing exhaust fans and defective clothes dryer vents.
“About 83 percent of our clients are seniors,” said Ryan. “Many of these repairs, like grab bars, don’t require huge skills, but they need to be done right.”
In the past year, RT Express took on 30 pilot projects in the area, boosted by grants from the Northern Virginia Health Foundation and the Falls Church Endowment Fund.
One South Arlington resident aided by RT Express in January, Kim Giao, 74, said she was “very lucky to get their help” because her house had become hazardous with broken faucets and toilets, poor lighting and no smoke detectors or grab bars.
Ryan recalled that Giao was especially grateful that the team reversed the swing on her refrigerator door. The old one opened in the wrong direction, forcing her to stand on the top steps of the basement stairs to retrieve anything.
“I realized I was not living in a safe situation,” said Giao, a retired beautician. “Now I feel like I’m in a safe place. They did a very good job.”
Ryan was executive director of the Alliance to End Childhood Lead Poisoning and a founding member of the National Center for Healthy Housing. He put that experience to good use in establishing criteria for safe, healthy houses that is used by Rebuilding Together nationwide.
Ryan mentioned a few safety and health hazards that homeowners often overlook: defective dryer vents, furnace filters that aren’t working, and broken gutters and downspouts that lead to chronic moisture, mold and pests.
“Moisture is the root of many problems we see in homes,” he said.
After a long career as an advocate and Capitol Hill staffer, Ryan doesn’t hesitate to say what he enjoys now, working for Rebuilding Together: “A fun day is pulling on a tool belt and seeing the difference we can make in someone’s home.”
RT-AFF works on homes year-round and always welcomes new volunteers. To become a volunteer, make a donation, or to apply for help, call Rebuilding Together Arlington/Fairfax/Falls Church at 703-528-1999 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Homeowners looking for help can apply at any time of the year. Priority is given to older adults, the disabled and families with children.
For more information, go to rebuildingtogether-aff.org.
Frank Davies is an editor for the AARP Bulletin. He worked as an editor and reporter for The Miami Herald for many years.