Volunteers' repair efforts bring smiles to a rainy day

April 21, 1991|By Jonathan Bor

Homes were being painted, swept, scrubbed and drywalle up and down Homestead Street yesterday, but Lucille Garner's was the worst case.

The roof started caving in 10 years ago, and the rain came in and filled buckets that she'd scattered throughout the house. But pails can't contain a deluge, so over the years the rain won out. It rotted the subflooring, ruined the cabinets, spoiled the rugs, brought down ceilings and turned furniture and clothes into mold factories.

But yesterday, as a steady drizzle dripped from the sky, Mrs. Garner was dry and grinning broadly as 30 people toting ladders, brooms, brushes and hammers shored up the place without leaving a bill.

"I'm so overwhelmed -- it's so beautiful already," she said, looking on as weekend warriors she had never met worked amid an obstacle course of carpets, tarpaulins and furniture pushed out of place.

It was all part of a program called Christmas in April, a massive effort in which 2,500 volunteers fixed up 65 homes in the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello and Better Waverly neighborhoods of Northeast Baltimore. The concept sprang up in Midland, Texas, and spread to 48 other cities including Baltimore.

Here, the project is run by a coalition of business leaders and other citizens who round up the volunteer labor force -- mostly folks from outside the Baltimore Beltway -- and solicit donations of money and materials. The rescue of Mrs. Garner's house, for example, was a collaboration between USF&G, which supplied most of the labor, and the Whiting-Turner Construction Co., which decided what had to be done.

"We have school kids, churches, bankers, lawyers, stockbrokers anddoctors and home improvement contractors," said Clare Miller, president of Christmas in April and senior public affairs representative for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.

All the houses are occupied by elderly homeowners who have had trouble coping with problems that range from the simple -- peeling plaster -- to the complex -- caved-in roofs.

Baltimore's Department of Housing and Community Development identifies neighborhoods needing repairs, and the neighborhood associations identify the homes where the owners need and want the work.

In the 1500 block of Homestead Street, it seemed that every third or fourth house had a "Spirit of Giving" sign and a trail of volunteers. By the time the nine-hour day was about over, workers had filled and hauled away about 30 trailers of trash.

All told, the repairs represented $800,000 in labor and material, according to the housing department.

Joanna von Brieson, a Christmas in April spokeswoman, said most of the houses needed modest repairs that could be accomplished in a day. But Mrs. Garner's was different.

"This is the house this year, the one we should have walked away from," said William Gaudreau, an architect who supervised the foremen on each project. The one-story house's problems were massive, far beyond the program's normal scope.

"But then, USF&G and Whiting-Turner got emotionally involved. They met this lady," Mr. Gaudreau said, referring to Mrs. Garner.

So her home received far more than a day's work and about seven times the average $1,500 in materials put into the other homes. Last week, a contractor erected a peaked roof on top of the flat roof that had leaked for so long.

Yesterday, three teams were putting in new floors and ceilings, installing new bathroom fixtures and sweeping out. They even changed the outside color from pink to white. And they brought in dry furniture, donated by Goodwill Industries.

"I do it because I know I can help somebody," said Keith Anderson of Mount Washington, a USF&G employee. "It's knowing this lady can have a bed to sleep on, knowing that she's going to have a dry house."

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