Home Repair Group Refurbishes a Sense Of Community


Spring has officially arrived, but for Laurlene Hardy Christmas is less than two weeks away. The senior citizen in Boston is a little unsure of how to prepare for the occasion. "Maybe I'll fix them sandwiches," she says of the 115 strangers who will show up in working clothes to work on her dilapidated house next week.

Mrs. Hardy is nevertheless excited. "I can hardly wait," she says. The strangers are volunteers with Christmas in April, a nationwide housing group that repairs homes of elderly and disabled people whose resources are limited. For the homeowners, the repair work (done on only one Saturday a year in April) is cost-free.

Plans are already set to replace the leaking roof of Hardy's three-floor house, scrape and prime the outside, and give it a final spiffing up with a coat of white paint. The estimated $15,000 effort that will take place on April 26 includes 12 new storm windows and beds of marigolds and chrysanthemums to be planted in her yard.

Welcome to Christmas in April. The volunteer group took its name after a grateful Texas homeowner whose house was repaired by the group in 1973 exclaimed: "Why, this is just like Christmas!"

This April, some 5,000 sites across America will be repaired by about 135,000 volunteers donating their time to deliver $24 million worth of renovations.

The group's community service comes a day ahead of the President's Summit for America's Future in Philadelphia. At the two-day conference, President Clinton, former President George Bush, and community groups will brainstorm on ways to help the needy through volunteerism.

"Volunteerism has risen dramatically during the '80s and '90s," says Richard Cone, who teaches social service at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. He believes that much of the inspiration for nationwide volunteer housing work can be traced to the better-known Habitat for Humanity.

The organizations have some basic similarities: They are bootstrap outfits that depend heavily on volunteer work and donated materials. But, while Christmas in April repairs houses for free, Habitat builds homes and sells them without profit.

Recently, however, the two philosophies seem to be converging. "We expect the recipients to pay back ... whatever they can," says Bobby Trimble, who started Christmas in April 25 years ago. "We don't want it to be a welfare thing."

But the group understands that not everyone can pay. "Free repair services often make the difference between a homeowner and a homeless family," says Millie Winstead who runs the Boston chapter. "What the volunteers bring can last a lifetime."

Donna Damon of Boston, whose home was repaired by the group last year, says the volunteers' work left her with lasting memories of kindness. "They [the volunteers] didn't let me pick up a paint brush," she says. "They told me, 'watch and make sure that we are doing a good job.' It was like I was really doing them a favor."

When her home was repaired last year, Mrs. Damon recalls that by dusk she had a new roof, a sturdy porch, new shutters for her windows, and the house painted in her favorite colors - yellow and green. "It was like Christmas, Easter, and birthday rolled into one," she says.

The search for homeowners is relatively simple. Applications are received throughout the year, Ms. Winstead says, with community organizations, neighborhood groups, churches, and sometimes former recipients referring people in need.

For instance, Josie Moore's partly burned house in San Diego drew attention when a police officer responded to a burglary call. Damon's house, on the other hand, was nominated by a neighborhood group because the house urgently needed repair. More important, Damon, who is supporting her disabled husband, couldn't begin to cover repair costs with her modest salary as a video-store clerk.

Christmas in April raises cash and kindness. Last year in Boston, for instance, civic-minded companies wrote checks, Brookline Ice kept the soda chilled, Home Depot chipped in with paint and building materials, and Borrowed Butler deli fixed the sandwiches. "Anyone who can lend a hand or hammer can help," Winstead says.

The urge to help people in need started at a prayer meeting, says Mr. Trimble. Quoting the Bible passage that inspired him, he says, " 'Faith, if it hath not works, is dead.' The deeds must be for everyone regardless of denomination, " he explains.

A devout Christian and former oil-field scout, Trimble says he kept thinking about the message. "In Midland, [Texas], when a neighbor had to move we had to move his furniture, livestock, and farming equipment," he says. "We did not even know what a 'volunteer' was."

After fixing an air conditioner, Trimble and his friends repaired a gate and a TV antenna. When the group fixed a roof, the town of Midland took notice and many joined in. Soon, the work attracted media attention, including Trevor Armdrister, a journalist from the Reader's Digest. Mr. Armdrister was so impressed with the group that he became involved, and expanded operations to a national level in 1982. With more than 200 affiliates, the group can be found in almost every town big enough to support a Ramada Inn.

Midland is still leading the way. There, in open Texan country, repairs are done all year round, not just the last Saturday of April. "We must do good all year round," the founder says. "Every day is Christmas."

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