When water seeped into the backyard, as a temporary fix she covered the area with patio umbrellas and scraps of carpet. Then she added plastic plants, miniature lights, fountains, candles, and chairs and named the area “Anne’s Paradise.” In creating her paradise, she acquired nine couches, eight patio sets, and piles of clutter. It seemed impossible to organize until she called Rebuilding Together at the suggestion of a friend who had received help from the organization.
“When the volunteers came, I really felt blessed,” Gonzales says. “They really helped out a lot.”
Crissi Belasco, 50, was among the dozens of volunteers who removed two dumpsters of clutter from the house, painted the exterior, cleared the yards, and installed water diversion devices to prevent leakage into the slab. “It’s not too strenuous,” says Belasco, a county court reporter who has volunteered with her daughter, Olivia, 17, on eight projects. “Anyone who shows up is useful, and I would encourage people to show up because it changes your perspective on life. The volunteers get just as much out of this as the recipients.”
Olivia, a high school senior, says volunteering exhausts her, but has strengthened the bond between her and her mother. “After [volunteering], there’s a great feeling that I helped someone,” she says. “Everyone should experience this.”
There are other alternatives to Rebuilding Together, although many may not offer as wide a range of services nor use volunteers. For example, the East Valley HandyWorker Program, which helps 150 families each year in a part of the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles, will install grab bars, paint, replace doors and windows, and perform minor plumbing and electrical work. City-approved contractors do the work, and recipient families are chosen based on age, need, and income. Those who need railings, ramps, and grab bars get priority. New clients get priority over those who have already received help.
“Many of these people don’t have to make payments on the house, but they don’t have the funds to keep up, either,” says Ron Berenson, HandyWorker program coordinator. East Valley doesn’t have enough funds to keep up with demand either. While the City of Los Angeles—which fully funds the program—has reduced annual funding by 25 percent, to $500,000, applications are up because of the ailing economy, he says.
Carmen Nevins, 83, says her 1937 two-bedroom house in Van Nuys, California, needed all sorts of work. Not painted in more than a decade, the walls were filthy. She hired a painter, only to find out that he charged exorbitant fees to paint one room. Then, through the East Valley HandyWorker Program, she was able to get the rest of the interior painted. “My husband could paint, but since he passed away, there’s been no one to help,” says Nevins, a Nicaraguan immigrant. “I get afraid of the contractors because I felt one of them overcharged me.”
Yolanda Gonzales (no relation to Anne), 51, had no one to help her, either. She was able to buy a home in Garden Grove, California, for herself and her daughter with money she received from her husband’s life insurance when he died in a house fire. “I felt it would be a way to make sure we had a place to live forever,” she says. But like Nevins, she can’t keep it up by herself. Her health problems have made it difficult to do housework.
Rebuilding Together volunteers installed grab bars and a handheld showerhead. They replaced a toilet, repaired bathroom flooring, and installed an electric garage door opener. They also repaired her backyard fence, which homeless people were jumping over. Gonzales says she feels quite fortunate to have received the help because she knows how so many people struggle to maintain a home.
“My whole life was worry. Now I don’t need to worry all the time,” she says. “What they did was give me a new life.