Nearly two decades ago, I watched a Rebuilding Together team complete a dream come true for an elderly woman, then 98. All she wanted was a stack-style washer and dryer and freshly painted rooms in her home.
“Well, I got all that and more,” Mary Edith said that day. “They painted my house inside and out and just about gave me a whole new bathroom.
“Can you believe it? They did all of this for me on one Saturday in April.”
That national program, Rebuilding Together (formerly known as Christmas in April), is still alive and well. It performs home repair and maintenance services at no charge for low-income homeowners and nonprofit facilities. The organization, pushed along for many years by sponsorship from the National Football League, stretches to reach the elderly, disabled and families with children in an attempt to help them remain warm, safe and independent in their homes. The organization now gets a national lift from Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association.
“The day” this year – in late April or early May, depending upon the region of the country – brings hundreds of volunteer laborers with donated supplies together to add grab bars, fix electrical outlets, replace windows – just about any minor repair or improvement.
Safety is the key. According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, 60 percent of the deaths of people over age 65 are the result of a fall in the home. Each year, more than 11 million senior citizens fall – that’s one out of every three people over 65. Treatment of the injuries and complications associated with falls costs more than $20 billion a year.
According to Rebuilding Together, there are about 3.7 million lower-income households with a disabled person – two-thirds of whom are also elderly. While an enormous segment of the population owns their homes, many cannot afford, or are physically unable, to maintain them. With the population of Americans 65 and older projected to rise from 33 million in 1995 to 62 million in 2025, the number of elderly and disabled also will skyrocket.
“Some people, especially older folks, just don’t like asking for help,” said Charlie Foushee, a veteran Rebuilding Together volunteer. “So we ask that friends and family members mention the possibilities (of Rebuilding Together). That way, they see the repair or addition benefiting the people who may come to visit rather than themselves.”
Last year, more than 250,000 volunteers from 270 affiliates worked on more than 8,000 homes and nonprofit facilities in the U.S., providing more than $84 million in improvements. Since the program began, 87,450 homes have been rehabilitated with the help of more than 2.3 million volunteer workers and suppliers.
Rebuilding Together relies on donations of cash, labor and materials from businesses and community groups before molding its schedule of projects. “I believe in the mission because as our population ages and our economy struggles, our services will be needed more and more,” said Sarah Ihrie, Rebuilding Together director of programs. “Not just by the homeowners, but also by the neighborhoods, cities and counties in which they live. Keeping our aging citizens independent in their homes will help relieve society of a burden that will be increasingly felt as the years progress.”
While some community volunteers have extraordinary skills, the construction industry’s skilled trade professionals – plumbers, electricians, iron workers, glaziers and roofers – not only save time with their expertise but they also get excited about being part of the program.