Is there a more fundamentally American ritual than the barn-raising?
People banding together to help a neighbor in need is part of the American story that we never get tired of hearing. But in contemporary times, there aren’t a lot of barns to be built or neighbors who heed the call to pitch in.
But there is Rebuilding Together, a national organization with a particularly active local chapter that operates from the same impulse.
Twice a year—once in the spring and again in the fall—Rebuilding Together Silicon Valley fans out across Santa Clara County with a battalion of volunteers, not to build barns but to do crucial home repairs for local neighbors in need.
The organization is active year-round in providing free home repair for its clients, but its two Rebuilding Days every year are showcase events when volunteers in tool belts and local businesses with community spirit come together for an all-day repair-apalooza, servicing anywhere from 30 to 40 homes in a single day.
Rebuilding Together aims its resources at people in need, mostly low-income homeowners. According to Bev Jackson, the local chapter’s executive director, about 90 percent of the people they serve are elderly or disabled, many of those living alone. All together, Jackson said, the company helps with repairs to about 360 homes every year in the South Bay, including Morgan Hill and Gilroy. The organization only serves owner-occupied homes—no rental units—and it has a residency requirement for people to live in their newly repaired homes for at least a year after the work is done, to discourage house flippers from exploiting the program. Still, the demand for the free home repairs is intense.
“It really depends on how many people are in the queue and how fast we can get to people,” said Jackson. “We really want to focus on health and safety repairs. So it’s not really a case of ‘Oh, I don’t like my brown carpet anymore. I want a new carpet.’ But instead we think, ‘Is it a tripping hazard? Is there an active leak in the roof?’—repairs to stairs or other aging-in-place things we can do to adapt the environment to someone who is aging.”
One such client is Leonarda Guzman, an 84-year-old mother of six daughters and a son, who has lived in her in northern Gilroy home for close to 50 years. She was widowed three years ago, and had trouble maintaining thehome that she and her husband had managed for decades together.
Last spring, a team of volunteers descended on the Guzman home and installed handrails and lighting inside and outside the house, replaced the stove, installed new plumbing fixtures and painted the exterior. The grateful homeowner, with the help of two daughters, hosted the entire team for a meal of chile colorado and handmade tortillas. The whole endeavor was underwritten and sponsored by the Morgan Hill-based architectural company Mission Bell.
“There are not enough words to say thank you,” said Guzman, struggling with her composure in her shady front yard.
“We had trouble getting her to accept, because she’s a very proud lady,” said Art Soza, the organization’s construction manager for South County. “She wanted us to leave money on the table to help other people.”
Soza’s job is to case out applicants’ homes to assess their needs. “We’re looking for a lot of things,” he said. “Safety issues are primary, access in and out. We look at functionality, windows, doors, water heaters, furnaces. We’ll do minor plumbing ourselves, but for big jobs, we have a number of subcontractors.”
In addition to homes, Rebuilding Together will also do repairs and maintenance work for some nonprofits to enable these organizations to spend their funds on things other than facilities.
Executive director Jackson said it’s not a hard sell to recruit volunteers to help those in that kind of situation. “A lot of people have aging parents or in-laws in other parts of the country and realize that if they don’t have support, there really is no other place for people to go. They want to keep up that house that they’ve lived in for years, but they don’t have the resources. On average, most of our homeowners have been in their homes for more than 25 years.”
One such volunteer who is eager to pitch in is Gilroy’s Loren Cantrell, who is spending his retirement working as a sexton for his church and a docent for Gilroy Gardens. “I sometimes threaten my wife that I’m going back to work so I can relax,” he joked.
Cantrell first got involved with Rebuilding Together Silicon Valley almost 20 years ago, when the aerospace company where he worked helped sponsor the program. Even after he left that job, he continued to be part of the organization’s twice-yearly Rebuilding Days.
With some experience in carpentry and plumbing, Cantrell has volunteered his time and talent replacing water heaters, installing toilets, building stairs, painting and doing electrical work.
“Sometimes we’ll go in to replace a garbage disposal,” he said, “and then it’s ‘Oh, hey, I got this new faucet that was extra, I might as well put that in, too.’ Then, we’ll see that the flooring is terrible, so we’ll put down a new subfloor or slap some paint on the wall. They’ll just stand there with their mouths hanging open, just watching these people swarm all over their house, on the inside and out.”
Rebuilding Together has been active in Silicon Valley for years, but the organization has only recently made big moves to be active in the South Valley area. The next Rebuilding Day will take place on Oct. 27, and by then the organization hopes to sign up several new South Valley-based businesses, churches or other organizations as sponsors.
At her home, Leonarda Guzman hosts a church group every month. Her daughter comes regularly and cooks for her, and her other children check on her regularly. Her house—which was originally built in San Jose and moved to the Gilroy property in 1970—represents the life that she built with her late husband. She had to take out a loan to replace its roof, and the volunteers at Rebuilding Together have made it so that she can stay there the rest of her life.
“To us,” she said, gesturing to her home, “it’s a palace.”
Rebuilding Together’s next Rebuilding Day will take place on Oct. 27. For more information on being a volunteer, a sponsor or a recipient of services from Rebuilding Together Silicon Valley, go to rebuildingtogethersv.org.