Allan Tibbels loves his neighbors by renovating their housing


June 21, 1992|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Staff Writer

People dream of leaving here, of escaping the police sirens and the eviction notices and the hopelessness that lives in Sandtown.

Yet five years ago Allan Tibbels moved in, uprooted his wife and two daughters from their rancher in Columbia, and made a home in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city.

He brought something with him: a desire to find homes for others. On this brilliantly sunny morning in June, that implausible dream is coming to life.

Former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, have arrived for a blitz building session that by week's end will mean 10 renovated homes in the area. Mayor Kurt Schmoke happily lugs buckets. Bob Embry of the Abell Foundation works alongside Sonia Moore of the Gilmor Homes public housing project. Next week, she will move into the house that Jimmy and Rosalynn built.

Mr. Tibbels surveys the scene and smiles. This is as good as your world gets when you're the executive director of Sandtown Habitat for Humanity, a chapter of the international group that renovates houses and sells them at no profit to low-income families.

It's barely 9 a.m. and already Mr. Tibbels is in overdrive. He is trying to track 200 volunteers and truckloads of supplies, a feat that has left him working non-stop for months. But it's a joyful madness, he explains, as he witnesses years of frustration melting away.

His face gives it all away, particularly the deep blue eyes that reveal an intensity with which he has taken on much of life -- from playing Little League to experimenting with drugs to, finally, coming to terms with a sports accident that left him a quadriplegic some 11 years ago.

Not content to move through the West Baltimore neighborhood in a wheelchair that goes 5 miles per hour, he is now mulling over getting a model that will triple his speed. His chairs are supposed to last 10 years, but he runs through them in three. The skid marks on North Gilmor Street are a testament to it.

"This guy is an inspiration to me and to everyone here who knows him," says Millard Fuller, the president and founder of the international organization.

Yet such accolades make the 37-year-old wince.

Instead, he's more likely to be pleased by Sandtown resident and Habitat homeowner Dee Paige's view of him: "When you talk to Allan Tibbels, you're talking to a straight-forward, down-to-earth, decent guy."

But he still must rely on others. With no feeling from the chest down, he has to ask for doors to be opened, tissues brought, shoes tied. He straps pencils to his palms to type reports.

But despite these challenges, there is a vibrancy to Allan Tibbels that his disability cannot quell. He rocks in his chair while talking, his speech fast and his thoughts complex. He's willing to debate any point -- the sources of urban poverty, the war on drugs, Christianity. But he seems happiest racing around Sandtown -- watching a once dying place get a second chance on life.

Disability as equalizer

His disability has been an odd sort of equalizer in a neighborhood well-versed in hardship. Some residents admit it's easier to accept a white man in a wheelchair.

"He's more acquainted with suffering than most of us," says the Rev. Mark Gornik, pastor of the New Song Community Church in Sandtown. "He knows about being hurt."

The hurt came on May 27, 1981, in a poorly constructed gym during a basketball game. Mr. Tibbels went for a routine layup. His brother, trying to block the shot, hit his legs. Allan's head crashed into the cinder-block wall behind the hoop.

"I moaned three times. I knew I had broken my neck. . . . Then I remember thinking what life would be like in a wheelchair," he says.

After five weeks in the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, three months in a rehabilitation center, and days of "utter, utter, utter hopelessness," he found out.

"I don't understand why I'm in a chair. I don't see any redeeming qualities in it. . . . There are times I say to God, 'Why couldn't this have happened to someone who prefers to stay in the house?' " he says.

But instead of giving up, he remained true to his original goal: wanting to help the urban poor. Sidetracked for six years by his accident, he -- and his family -- finally moved in 1987, over the objections of his parents and friends.

The transition wasn't entirely smooth. At first, residents mistook him -- virtually the only white in a black community -- for a police informant. For the first two years, he and his family kept a low profile, talking and listening to neighbors, hesitant to plunge in with imagined solutions.

"We didn't want to come in and impose some white savior agenda," he says.

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