'Christmas in April' volunteers repair area homes

ELVES AT WORK

April 25, 1993|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

Bouquets of green and red balloons floating outside 75 Baltimore city and county houses yesterday marked where more than 2,000 volunteers were carrying on an American tradition -- helping their neighbors.

Called "Christmas in April," it was like an old-fashioned barn-raising, as volunteers, including Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden, swept into communities such as Turners Station and Govans for the day bringing gifts of labor and love.

They sawed and hammered, plastered and painted, installed new floors, new wiring and new plumbing. They built new decks and porches and took on myriad other tasks -- even planting gardens -- to improve the homes of people who couldn't do it for themselves.

It was the fourth such "Christmas" in Baltimore City and the second in Baltimore County and, as several volunteers said, "This is the first time it hasn't rained."

Nationally, about 100,000 "Christmas in April" volunteers in 238 cities in 32 states go out to work repairing houses -- and the tradition simply keeps growing, said Joanna von Briesen, Baltimore's public relations director for the organization.

In Maryland, it also happens in Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties. In Carroll County, for example, about 100 volunteers worked on five houses yesterday.

"It's a lot of work I couldn't afford to do. I just have Social Security, and I couldn't go in debt to get it done," said Juanita Ramey, 66, of the 200 block of Chestnut Street in Turners Station, as she tested the new deck that had replaced her broken old concrete front porch.

"It's just beautiful," she said.

Ray Aldao, an electrician with Baltimore Gas & Electric Co., said his crew not only replaced the porch but was redoing Mrs. Ramey's bathroom.

"We've got the guys who can do it," Mr. Aldao said.

While volunteers worked on 19 houses in Turners Station, a small black community south of Dundalk, other crews repaired 56 homes throughout Govans, off York Road south of Woodbourne Avenue.

Naomi Alston, 64, of the 700 block of Sheridan Avenue, watched the workers digging out a trench to reroute a drain line so it would no longer leak into her basement. Once that was finished they reseeded her front lawn, and replaced part of her sidewalk that had become cracked and dangerous.

"They are doing things I wouldn't be able to get done. They are so nice," said Mrs. Alston, a widow.

Mr. Hayden spent his day on a ladder spackling and painting ceilings for Anna Robinson, who lives near Mrs. Ramey.

"We have people who don't have the ability to do it themselves and it gives us a chance to help," the county executive said. "We're helping to improve the neighborhood and people take more pride when they have decent living conditions."

Mr. Hayden, members of his staff and volunteers from the Baltimore County Leadership Program worked in Anna Robinson's rowhouse, an end-of-group that required extensive repair, including a new kitchen floor, a new porch roof, new bathroom, rewiring, window caulking and interior painting.

As a fillip, volunteers rebuilt her front flower garden and reseeded the lawn.

Mrs. Robinson, 74, said she has lived in the house for 50 years, but that she no longer has the strength or the money to keep it up. Her gratitude was touching.

"I can't tell you what it means to me," she said. "It was falling down on me. I didn't know what to do, then God sent you all."

Don Loftus, executive vice president of Greater Baltimore Medical Center and a Christmas in April board member, said, "It is a feel-good operation, but it gives us an opportunity to take on a number of tasks people can't do for themselves. The intent to is take care of basic needs which can be done in one day, although sometimes it goes beyond one day and people come back to finish up a bigger job."

Planning for Christmas in April goes on year-round, Ms. von Briesen said. The organization confers with city and county housing officials to determine which communities need attention. The degree of home ownership, residents' ages, physical condition and income level are the leading criteria.

Once a community is selected, community associations and churches are notified and asked to take applications from residents who want help. That list is winnowed down to meet available financing and representatives inspect the houses to see what work is required and prepare a list of materials so they are ready in the warehouse to be picked up on the day.

Organizations pay $1,500 to sponsor a house for repair.

In addition to that money, which is used for supplies, a great deal of additional material is donated. Yesterday's budget was $106,500 -- and "they got $800,000 worth of work for that money," said Robert L. Mead, a project spokesman.

Contractors large and small have supported the project and provided skilled workers who can supervise and do the work, Mr. Mead said. Churches, businesses, law offices, schools and a score of other organizations of all types provide volunteers.

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