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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Rebuilding Together

This is a post I've been meaning to write ever since June 25th, when our group volunteered with an affordable housing organization called Rebuilding Together in Akron, Ohio. It was, by far, the most troubling volunteer experience I've ever had, and I finally have time today to sit down for a second to write about it. It’s very, very long; I encourage comments.

For those who have never heard of Rebuilding Together, it is a nationwide organization, with independent affiliates set up throughout the country, just like Habitat for Humanity. The organization focuses on home rehabilitation in more impoverished neighborhoods, especially for homeowners who are too elderly or handicapped to physically handle the labor of home upkeep. The idea of the organization is provide a service that both makes homes more livable, respectable, and enjoyable for these homeowners, as well as to increase home values and neighbors' desires to fix up their own houses.

As much as these ideas and values resonate with me, both my experiences with Rebuilding Together have been profoundly troubling. They revolve around poor choice of housing sites, how our group was outfitted for the job, and a questioning of the general impact of the work we were doing.

My first experience with Rebuilding Together was last summer, in St. Louis, MO. We were to repaint the interior of an elderly woman's house. The Rebuilding rep came to greet us in the morning, handed us some cans of paint and supplies, and said she had to take off, but if we needed anything, to call. Our group went inside and got to work, only to realize that we were painting over a fairly decent paintjob. This was the first of many 'bad realizations': not only were we painting over paint (instead of stripping it down), we were doing a job that didn't need to be done in the first place. Furthermore, the woman and her very capable teenage son spent most of the day watching TV while we worked; instead of feeling like we were doing a good community deed for a grateful household, this setup made our work akin to patronizing and disconnected servitude, not constructive volunteerism. The last straw at this housing site came when we ran out of paint halfway through the job. When we called our site supervisor, she was at a Cardinals game, and suggested we go buy paint and get reimbursed later.

I was truly hoping this second, more recent, experience with Rebuilding Together in Ohio would leave a more positive impact on me. Instead, it was far worse. Our 30 riders were split into one large housing site and two smaller locations. I was part of a three-person team to go to one of the small sites. Upon arrival, the three of us learned our task: a 40 person group of bankers had been required to volunteer for the day a week prior, and had amateurishly painted the entire house, sans dropcloths, sans tape, with no care or precision or regard. Apparently no site supervisor noticed or stopped them during the day. Paint was everywhere- in the carpets, the tub, the ceiling, the floorboards, even smothered over light switches. Our job was to take paint thinner and harsh solvents to it all, and basically spend the day scrubbing away the mistakes of the group before us. The task wasn't enviable, but the three of us approached it as a necessary task to leave the house in good form for the homeowner.

I’ll try to quickly summarize the day: Our site supervisor took off for another housing site, and the three of us started to get to work removing paint in the narrow hallways, the small bathroom, and the staircase. It only took a few minutes to realize the solvents we were using were superstrong, but we had been left with no facemasks or gloves- only the thinner, some rags, and paintbrushes, none of which removed the paint very well. We weren’t about to get poisoned in order to finish the job, so we asked for the materials we needed. There was a lot of sitting around and waiting for this one site manager to return, as he had to bounce between three build sites, while constantly running to the hardware store to pick up materials everyone needed but didn’t have at the beginning of the day. Even when we got more materials, we still were not able to properly execute the job. For example, we were able to finally scrub paint off the baseboards, but also took off the varnish, leaving patches of unfinished wood that now dotted varnished baseboards.

Safety and material wise, our situation wasn’t unique either- at the other small build site, I learned the day’s task involved scraping lead paint off the walls of a basement and sweep up the particles, all without any ventilation at all. This, above all, is scary and inexcusable; no matter the organization, the health and safety of its volunteers should never be compromised.

Self-portrait with my makeshift facemask.

Finally, on the homeowner: She was a 50-something, manic-depressive, chain smoker with serious health issues. No joke, our volunteer facilitator on the way had briefed us in the car over. When we entered the house, which reeked of smoke, we saw her lying despondent on the couch, chain smoking and watching TV; she stayed like this all day. Her cousin, a nice man and a painter from the next town over, was also visiting for the day. The woman lived in a very, very depressed neighborhood in a very, very depressed town (Akron was once the rubber capital of the world, and the epicenter of Goodyear, it is now far removed from its former self). About half of the houses that surrounded this woman were foreclosed and/or abandoned.

Just like the previous experience with Rebuilding Together, the two of them sat and watched TV all day long, which killed me, especially because the cousin was an able-bodied, professional painter. At the end of the day, the woman resentfully remarked that we had missed some paint spots. The overall circumstances of the day were bleak and upsetting: we were inefficiently and sloppily covering up an already sloppy paint job (a band-aid on a band-aid), for a bitter woman on her deathbed whose house will be demolished if anything because it was covered in 20 years of cigarette tar, and we devoted an entire day to something her cousin does for a living, and chose to not partake in while we were there.

20 years of tar coming off the walls.

It’s hard to come away with something positive out these two experiences, but here is what I’ve come away with:

- Choosing appropriate housing sites is key: It’s the best way to motivate volunteers to execute their work with quality and care. Put them on a build site with plenty of worthwhile, quality-based projects that are to be performed correctly. If you give a volunteer a shortcutted task, without the appropriate tools, you’ll get a shortcutted result.
- Sweat equity: Nothing is as morale-lowering as seeing the people you’re trying to help not interact or assist the group in any way, TV watching especially. Even for the folks who are handicapped, just having them talk to the volunteers during breaks is enough.
- Site supervisors: Need to be on-site for the majority of the day. If there are multiple sites, get multiple supervisors. Money did not seem to be incredibly tight, perhaps supervisors were hard to find. It helps prevent the types of situations we were cleaning up after, and also helps create solidarity with volunteers. Dispatching volunteers to a build site on their own will rarely yield good results or a good take-away feeling.
- Preparation: Perhaps just as important as site selection. In 90% of volunteerism, the group wants to work hard, all day long. Not having the right quantities of materials and the proper tools will completely halt this process, is incredibly frustrating for the volunteers, and is inefficient for the organization- 30 capable people who could be working are not.
- Safety and health: There is no better way for a volunteer to immediately doubt an organization than by compromising their personal health.

We’ve got one more Rebuilding Together day, on the last day of our trip, and I’ve been working closely with a woman on their board to make sure this last day is impressive, fulfilling, and leaves our riders with a better impression of the organization. Stay tuned to find out mid-August…

3 comments:

Josh said...

you might send this post to the person at the end of the ride. good insights. sometimes you need to see it wrong to understand how to do it right. thanks for writing. josh

Lynn said...

I can't believe it happened again. Have Amelia or Brendan mentioned similar experiences with other groups? What a letdown.

It seems like this type of "maintenance" volunteer work should be even more well-organized and planned than building from the ground up. Then again, if these men and women are watching TV all day, what makes us think that they even care to have their homes painted, poorly or even painted at all...

Kevin said...

All I remember from Rebuilding Together last year were neighborhood guys coercing young co-eds into jumping on their trampoline.