Jan Kirk Wright spent 20 years sizing up strangers' homes as a busy real estate agent in rural Tennessee.
Then, in 2009, her pastor asked her to visit a widow in her 50s whose house needed some repairs. Wright was stunned by what she saw.
"There was a huge hole in her roof," said Wright. "I'd never seen anything like that. I've been in a lot of houses, but I never knew that people lived like that."
That visit was a turning point, not only in Wright's life, but also in the East Side neighborhood of Columbia. After that first visit, she discovered many longtime homeowners in that area lived on fixed incomes and often could not afford to make repairs.
Instead of continuing to buy and sell homes, Wright retired her real estate license and turned her attention to repairing and rehabilitating dilapidated homes around East Side.
Using her real estate contacts — bankers, contractors, agents — Wright formed People Helping People Together. She selected 13 board members, wrote bylaws, raised funds, created house adoption rules, launched a website and recruited and organized volunteers. The program grew through word of mouth at her church, then to other churches, businesses in the community and government agencies.
First Farmers & Merchants Bank in Columbia provided $5,500 in seed money to rehabilitate the first house and has since donated $90,000, said its president, Tim Pettus. Other banks have followed, and the Tennessee Housing Development Agency has provided about $200,000 in matching grants.
People Helping People Together has replaced roofs, repaired broken windows and doors, repainted exteriors, and added siding and landscaping to 35 homes owned by residents who are physically or financially unable to do it themselves.
"When you change a person's living conditions, you change her whole world," said Wright. "I have seen residents walk taller, and the happiness I see in people's eyes is indescribable."