When the roof began leaking on Florence Hanson's four-room house last year, she knew her meager $5,700-a-year retirement income wouldn't stretch to cover the cost of repairs. At the same time, Tampa's frequent summer rains made the problem hard to ignore. A cousin, hearing about her dilemma, offered a suggestion: call the Centre for Women about their free emergency home repair program for low-income elderly.
Mrs. Hanson took the advice. Soon four women, crew members for the Senior Home Improvement Program (SHIP), were laying shingles and sealing the house - at no cost to Mrs. Hanson.
The happy ending didn't end there. When the repair crew went inside, they discovered other problems. The bathroom floor was sagging from water damage and termites. Window screens were torn. Both front and back doors hung at a slant, and the front threshhold had rotted away. The women added Mrs. Hanson's name to their waiting list and promised to come back to do the additional repairs.
For homeowners like Mrs. Hanson (whose name has been changed here to maintain SHIP's promise of confidentiality to its clients), these free repairs can sometimes mean the difference between staying in their homes and being forced to move out.
``We work with the poorest of the poor,'' says Angela Martinez, founder and director of the seven-year-old SHIP program. Noting that most clients are women whose median income is $3,700, she adds, ``They have no other resources to get their work done. They can't take out a loan. They've worked all their lives to pay off these houses. They're not about to put a mortgage on them.
``A good many of the houses aren't worth repairing,'' she continues. ``But they're worth repairing to that person. We try to hold the house together for the length of time that person will need it.''
At 7:00 each morning, the four women on SHIP's crew meet in a warehouse behind the Centre for Women to assemble materials for that day's projects. Dressed in blue jeans and identical red nylon jackets, they load two white trucks and head for their work site.
For Ms. Martinez, a trim, energetic mother of four, hands-on construction experience began early. After her parents were divorced, she moved with her mother and sisters from ``a beautiful house in Michigan to a very modest little thing in Miami.'' Fourteen-year-old Angela wanted a window in her bedroom. But money was tight, so she watched construction crews and learned to do the work herself. By the age of 19 she was digging footings, adding rooms, and laying bricks.
But not until her own marriage ended in 1977 did Martinez begin turning those building talents into a community endeavor. A displaced homemaker herself, she served as a volunteer at the Centre for Women, helping other displaced homemakers redirect their lives after being divorced or widowed.
In that role she discovered that ``one of the most depressing things is to have your house fall down around you and not have money to fix it.''
Drawing on her earlier construction experience and her talents as a sculptor, she organized a group of women to help repair a roof after a tree fell on a client's home. So successful was the project that she began teaching other women about construction, and SHIP was born. One crew member, Frances Potts, is an artist who holds a degree in interior design. Another worker, Nancy Cafaro, is a potter.
``These women are experienced carpenters,'' she continues. ``There's nothing in the whole world that they wouldn't know how to fix, repair, replace, rebuild.''
``A lot of it is common sense,'' Ms. Cafaro says modestly. ``You just have to tear back until you find something to nail to. Then you start building forward.''
Ms. Potts explains the work another way: ``It's a puzzle. You get to solve a puzzle every day.''
Because of their competence in solving those puzzles, the women have earned the respect of builders and inspectors. Often, after inspectors have cited a house for building code violations, they give elderly homeowners SHIP's phone number. ``They don't want to throw these people out of their houses,'' Martinez explains.
Crew members on another program, CHORE, handle heavy jobs such as yard work and window washing. Still other volunteers - students from church groups and airmen from a nearby air force base - paint houses on weekends.
Despite their success, the future of both SHIP and CHORE is in question. Both programs are partly funded through the Older Americans Act. Roofing and plumbing work is funded by the city of Tampa. Some supplies are donated by businesses - boxes of tile from a floor company, 250 gallons of paint from a paint company, wallpaper from K Mart. An Adopt-a-House program allows individuals and businesses to sponsor repairs on a house for a $300 ``adoption fee.'' And proceeds from an annual plant sale pay for heaters elderly clients need during winter months.
But insurance costs doubled this year, and budgets have been cut. ``We may be coming to a screeching halt at the end of next year,'' Martinez says. ``It takes more energy to get money for the program than for me to go out and repair a house.''
If the programs do cease, the loss will be devastating. ``We're the only program of this type for the elderly,'' Martinez explains, a hint of incredulity in her voice. ``Can you imagine, in a city of this size and with this much wealth, that four women stand between the elderly and the possible loss of their homes?''
The group's caring goes far beyond repairs. Many clients come to think of the crew members as friends or even relatives. One 96-year-old woman listed Martinez as her next of kin on a hospital admission form. Another client told her, ``Miz Angela, you is the only family I've got.''
On Thanksgiving, the CHORE crew delivered dinners from a local restaurant to homebound clients. The following day they took 52 others to dinner at a local restaurant.
In addition, at the end of every project, crew members give each client a ``goody bag'' containing makeup or jewelry donated by Avon, soap samples the Post Office couldn't deliver, and, last month, perhaps a Christmas ornament.
``We can put $500 in repairs in the house and the clients may not be impressed,'' Martinez says. ``But we give them a little bag of goodies and they cry, saying, `Nobody ever gave me anything before.'
``We don't just fix houses,'' she adds quietly, flipping through before and after photos of completed projects. ``We fix spirits too.''