Christmas gifts in April: fixing homes for needy

April 26, 1995|By Vikki Valentine | Vikki Valentine,Contributing Writer

A master carpenter for 48 years, James Melton has done everything from laying floors to nailing down roofs to painting house interiors. Now, at age 78, injuries from that work have made even light repairs on his Waterloo Road home in Columbia too arduous.

Saturday, however, Howard County's chapter of Christmas in April will help him get the work done for free.

In more than 400 communities nationwide, Christmas in April is a grass-roots effort in which neighbors help neighbors. Volunteers in local communities dedicate a Saturday in April to repairing the homes of elderly, disabled and low-income families.

Under the direction of Howard's Christmas in April chapter, a team of about 30 volunteers from the support group SWORD -- Single, Widowed or Divorced -- is gearing up for an eight-hour transformation of James and Lucy Melton's home. Using their skills and labor plus materials from the Christmas in April warehouse, the group will put siding on the house, build a back porch, and clean away stumps and debris from the yard.

SWORD is among 30 groups and more than 100 students and other individuals fanning out across the county this weekend to repair 32 homes. The local Christmas in April chapter expects more than 1,200 volunteers to participate.

The Howard chapter was formed four years ago. "It's a marriage between a community's needs and people willing to work on solving those needs," said Manus O'Donnell, one of its founders. "We've gotten a really great start. We do as many houses here as they do in Baltimore City or D.C."

Starting in the summer, government agencies, local churches, schools and neighbors refer families to Christmas in April. Then volunteers screen the applicants for need. Next, each site is inspected to determine what repairs are needed.

"Generally, we try to match the skills of the volunteers to the

work needed on the houses," said Mr. O'Donnell, whose regular job is director of Howard County's Department of Citizen Services.

The volunteering organizations range from such small groups as SWORD to such large ones such as Baltimore Gas and Electric, Coca-Cola and the U.S. Postal Service.

Usually, an organization is assigned to one house, but the larger organizations can take responsibility for two. Along with providing 20 to 30 volunteers per house, the groups have to raise at least $1,500 to purchase materials needed in addition to those already donated.

Architect Kamal Chaudbury encouraged his group, SWORD, to become involved with the Christmas in April project. He said he was surprised by the group's enthusiasm and dedication. "I thought a group like this would be too overwhelmed or too involved in getting their own lives going," he said.

A four-year veteran of the Christmas in April chapter, he thinks one of the main benefits of the program is often hidden.

"What we are doing is mostly for ourselves. Their [homeowners'] lives would go on if we didn't do this. I think they are kind enough to allow us to do this," he said.

"Each person's situation is different, and a wide range of repairs are needed," said Christmas in April board member Kate Whiting. "They would like to do the repairs themselves, but for whatever reason, they are unable to do that."

The Meltons say they would like to be able to take care of things on their own.

"The hardest thing he ever had to do was go into retirement," Mrs. Melton said of her husband. "He's always been one to work."

By the early 1970s, doctors had told Mr. Melton that because of his injuries, he could never work enough to make a living.

Mrs. Melton's situation isn't any better.

Used to taking care of her house, her yard and her six children, she now is legally blind and has osteoporosis. Her doctor even forbade the 78-year-old from putting fitted sheets on the bed.

"I haven't cooked a meal since May 1993. I can't. I can't stand up long enough without getting dizzy," she said.

The homeowners do have a say in what they would like done to their houses. Last year, the Meltons needed a kitchen floor -- there were barely any tiles left. But Mr. Melton didn't want a new one installed until he had finished making oak cabinets for the kitchen, a project that had taken five years because of his injuries and financing.

So Christmas in April bought the floor in 1992 and left it for the Meltons' relatives to install the following year.

Elkridge residents James and Rose Squires are also past and present recipients of Christmas in April's help. "Our roof was peeling off, and we didn't have the money to fix it," said Mrs. Squires, 62. "That's all we really asked for, but they did things I didn't even expect."

In addition to putting on a new roof, the volunteers painted three rooms and planted trees. "I'm really anxious to see what the surprises are this year," she said. "I'm like a little kid getting a toy at Christmas," she said.

"It's nice to see nice people doing things," said the Meltons' granddaughter Linda Leathers. "They have a lot of help that's inexperienced, but they can put a paintbrush in their hands. Then they also have master plumbers and carpenters who give up a day and do this for free."

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