It’s a drizzly gray Saturday morning in October, and a squad of eight volunteers have “invaded” the South Arlington home of Hattie Johnson, age 99.
They’ve come armed not with weapons but tool chests, handyman know-how and personal commitment to something larger than themselves.
Their t-shirts show they’re part of the joint Arlington/Fairfax/Falls Church affiliate of the national nonprofit Rebuilding Together. I knew the group when I volunteered for home restoration labor under its previous moniker “Christmas in April.”
The name change was phased in over a decade ago, I was told by my neighbor Don Ryan, the healthy home specialist now on his “third or fourth” career as Rebuilding Together’s director of partnerships, as a nod to the need for all-year volunteering—not just a single National Rebuilding Day.
Homeowner Johnson had heard about the group from a neighbor who had benefited from the trained volunteers who swoop into the homes of low-income elderly and outfit them with everything from bathroom grab bars to functioning smoke and Co2 detectors. She “couldn’t believe they could do this,” said the South Carolina native who came to Arlington from New York with a job with IBM. As she nears the century mark, Johnson still works evenings at the coat check at nearby Army-Navy Country Club.
The homeowner seems completely at ease as strangers poke their way around her wall-mounted collection of hats and her piano chock-a-block with photos of her late husband and multi-generation extended family.
The subdivided teams chat amiably as they install a new handrail on her stairs, plumb in a new toilet and erect fresh screens on windows. They also reattach her kitchen countertop, re-secure cabinet hinges and test her fire extinguisher. There to help during a stop on the campaign trail is county board member John Vihstadt.
The goal of a safe and healthy home is more central to Rebuilding Together’s mission than a simple paint job, Ryan told me, especially when bad weather prevents improvements to the home’s exterior. “Anyone can paint,” but his volunteers bring higher skills they teach to others, he adds.
Johnson, as it turned out, had suffered a fall coming down from her attic. That’s why the “invaders” work to spot “fall hazards”—the loosened two-step stoop they repair at her back entrance. “A good deal of our experience is helping seniors age in place,” said Ryan, who previously lobbied agencies and did legislative work for healthy housing. “AARP recommends identifying fall hazards, but it’s easier for wealthy people,” he adds. “Low-income people are at the mercy of low-bid contractors.”
The local affiliate of Rebuilding Together as an affordable housing enhancer received a $70,000 grant from Arlington, and another $145,000 from Fairfax for the group’s office on Fairfax’s Main Street run by Executive Director Patti Klein.
The larger budget comes more from corporate sponsors, faith-based groups and individual donations. It allowed the group in fiscal 2018 to attract 1,300 volunteers who contributed 11,600 hours to 101 projects (89 individual homeowners; nine group homes, two nonprofit service centers, and one community park).
“I’m going to turn the water pressure back on,” shouts a volunteer who has the drill down to a science. Said Ryan, “It shows what a difference you can make with a little money and volunteers.“
Many of my childhood friends who settled away from Arlington still ask whether people remember Halls Hill.
Author and motivational speaker Wilma Jones, who grew up in that African-American development off Lee Highway and N. George Mason Dr., just published a paperback “My Halls Hill Family: More Than a Neighborhood.” (Available on Amazon.com.)
Part memoir, part historic chronicle, Jones’ multi-generational narrative begins in 1850 and sketches modern drama in an evocative, personal statement on segregation and life-long community ties. My favorite passages deal with the building of Langton School (now a community center), and creation of the Halls Hill baseball team, the Virginia White Sox, in the regional “colored” league.