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."
The combination of private and public funds buys supplies and pays professional contractors for major home repairs, such as roofing or plumbing. A team drawn from 1,500 volunteers aids in other repairs.
When the home is done, a smaller group of volunteers "adopts" the house, adding extra touches like porch swings, flowerpots and landscaping, and replacing mailboxes, for example. Most of the work is done on the homes' exteriors
Annie Hardison, 73, who has lived in her single-story, two-bedroom house since 1976, was among the first East Side residents to benefit.
Hardison's roof was leaking in the living room, kitchen and one of her bedrooms. She paid a contractor $800 to fix the problem, but when the leaks returned, she couldn't afford to do more.
People Helping People Together hired roofers, and the leaks finally stopped. In addition, workers installed central heat and air conditioning, added insulation, painted the siding, installed guard rails on the porch steps, repaired the water stains on her ceilings and spruced up her small yard.
The impact of the effort has gone beyond simply fixing homes like hers, Hardison said. When she moved in, East Side was a modest but neat neighborhood of one-story brick or wood-sided homes. About 20 years ago, she said, the neighborhood fell prey to drug dealers. People abandoned their homes, empty lots filled with trash, and sneakers began appearing on telephone wires on every block — a code for where to buy drugs.
Restoring neighborhood pride
The rehab effort has re-instilled neighborhood pride — a signal Hardison believes residents are sending to drug dealers that the "neighborhood is back."
"When you are able to sit out on your porch and tend your flowers, I think that's the grandest thing in the world," she said.
In October, Wright was honored by AARP Tennessee with the Andrus Award for Community Service and given a check for $2,500 to continue the organization's efforts, which Wright says "transform entire neighborhoods, by renovating one house at a time."
Anita Wadhwani is a reporter based in Nashville.
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