Imagine, if just for a second, that it’s the middle of winter, and you have no heat. Or perhaps you have not one, but two, bathrooms in your house – except, neither of them works. Or that your new life circumstances dictate that you can no longer navigate steps, and without a ramp, you’re a prisoner in your own home.
For some residents of Thurston County, these are not fictitious stories. These are real-life scenarios faced every day, and without the help of Rebuilding Together Thurston County and their Critical Repairs Program, the situations become dire.
Cathy Johnson has been a volunteer board member for Rebuilding Together Thurston County for the past five years, and has served as board president for the past three. “The senior population is actually the fastest growing population of homeless people in Thurston County right now,” Cathy explains. The local chapter of Rebuilding Together, a national nonprofit organization works with anyone in need, but the targets are elderly, military veterans, families with young children or people who are disabled. “Seventy-five percent of our clients are over the age of 60,” she adds.
Cathy is passionate about the work that Rebuilding Together does. Its mission is to bring together volunteers and communities to help low-income homeowners live in warmth, safety and independence. They do this through an annual Rebuilding Day event, but also throughout the year with critical repairs. “Most of our clients are people who’ve lived in their homes 10-20 years,” she says, “they’re aging in place, and sometimes living on slightly less than $1,000 per month, that has to cover their manufactured home park space, rent, food, utilities – all of that. They don’t have money to put in a hot water tank or fix their stairs. They just don’t.”
This is why the Critical Repairs Program is so vital. Critical repairs within the Rebuilding Together program are generally classified as a quick fix, come in around $500 or less and directly contribute to health and safety. Things like hot water tanks, furnace repair, electrical fixes, or wheelchair ramps, are examples of critical repairs they perform. The repairs are typically made within a week or two of receiving the application. “Our goal is to do two to four critical repair projects per month,” Cathy says.
How they do it is a bit of community magic, and Cathy is not the only passionate volunteer. She currently has about six key volunteers for wheelchair ramps, steps, grab bars and emergency floor repairs. For more skilled projects, she tirelessly thanks the contractors at Reliable Electric, Chehalis Sheet Metal, White Knight Plumbing and Springer Plumbing for their work on these vital projects.
For the past four years, a group of volunteers from the First United Methodist Church of Olympia have been steadfast in pitching in, doing at least one repair project a month. Bruce Keough, who heads up the group, has been involved with Rebuilding Together for the past 15 years. “I like several things about these projects,” he says. “They give our group an opportunity to go out into the community and do good. The projects provide a social outing and it gives less-experienced workers the opportunity to see how to do things that they may have been uncomfortable trying alone. Also, many hands can do big things in a hurry.”
In addition, the group has found others ways to support Rebuilding Together by making food for the work parties and fundraising throughout the year. “We have been doing an annual major project with them,” Keough says, “and smaller-scoped projects in between. The projects are great for a diversely-skilled group and since the time frame is very short – typically one or two days – there is instant gratification from completing a meaningful project. It also is nice for the volunteers that a long-time commitment is not required. The recipients of the projects are uniformly grateful for the repairs we do.”
Volunteer, Jeff Eisel of Oak Curl Construction is a flooring expert and has also helped the program tremendously. “Jeff is worth more than money to me,” says Cathy, “because of his skill-set.” Jeff volunteers two days per month now, which helps Rebuilding Together immensely as so many have flooring issues. Jeff also brings his teenage daughter along and she’s using her volunteer hours for community service credits to rebuild the community too.
This past year Rebuilding Together received a Community in Partnership grant for $21,000. Cathy simplifies the grant as “all of the different government agencies in the area pooling their money and then picking an area where they want the money to go.” This year’s focus was shelter and housing, and the Rebuilding Together organization was among a few other deserving recipients like Homes First who received vital funds to fuel their organization’s mission. It’s grants like this one, along with generous community donations that enable Rebuilding Together to operate. Cathy adds that the great thing about being a nonprofit in Thurston County is that they all work together to achieve their goals and make real progress.
What the real progress looks like when it comes to the critical repairs is working toilets for Charles, new flooring for Carol, and restored electricity, stair repair, and plumbing fixes for April.
A Continuing Need
Cathy reports that in 2017 the program had 30 applications, in 2018 there were 53 applications, and at the time of this article, there were already more than 28 applications in, just barely halfway through the year. The need is growing, and hopefully the volunteer base and the donations grow with it.
They need skilled craftspeople to support this vital community work, as aging-in-place is a remarkably life-changing gift for the seniors of our community. Skilled volunteers are needed to help the Critical Repairs Program grow, and just a few hours a month of volunteerism could literally add years to someone’s life. It helps to keep “the Golden Years” golden and also improves the mental health of those it serves.
Rebuilding Together Thurston County currently has six board members and could use two more, specifically a contractor. In addition, if you’re able-bodied, have a solid work ethic and a kind heart, non-skilled volunteers are always welcome to help with painting, gutter cleaning, landscape clean-up and more.
“I would love to do a wheelchair ramp a month,” Cathy says. “I’d like to have a set day where volunteers could show up and work away on a project without calling or signing up. We aren’t quite there yet,” she says, “but I’d like to be.”
Want to pitch in? Contact Rebuilding Together Thurston County, or call 360-539-7830. If you are a homeowner in need of a critical repair, you may submit an application via their website or give them a call.