The drawback of big numbers (example: 1,400 homes repaired at no cost to their owners in 18 years) is that the outside observer will see the collective good but not the individual impact each project has.
The individual homeowner has no such distraction, however.
“It’s devastating when you’re a prisoner in your own home and your body,” said Sandra Hladik of Wilton, who in recent years has used a wheelchair because of multiple sclerosis. “And then all of a sudden the world opens up for you.”
Rebuilding Together Saratoga County installed a wheelchair ramp outside Hladik’s residence and a wheelchair lift inside.
“MS has a way of little by little taking your independence away,” she said. “Rebuilding Together gave me independence again.”
The organization also had the house’s leaking roof replaced.
This is what the Ballston Spa-based nonprofit does: It performs repairs and upgrades to make homes safe and habitable for people who can’t afford to do the work themselves.
The need is always there.
“Usually people who are doing OK don’t ask for help from us,” said Michelle Larkin, founder and executive director of Rebuilding Together Saratoga County.
Many years ago, Larkin and her husband, Dan, made a number of trips with their church to provide similar assistance to needy people in other states, sometimes for Rebuilding Together affiliates. In 2003, she began to wonder if the same need didn’t exist a lot closer to home. The Saratoga County affiliate was born.
“I started this on a whim off my kitchen table,” she said. “Then the old typical — you get your friends and relatives to help out.”
The first workday brought together 100 volunteers for six projects, with Allerdice, Adirondack Trust Co. and Curtis Lumber as the first sponsors.
“We started out with no budget and now our budget is $2.5 million,” Larkin said.
There are 10 paid employees and a core of 20 to 30 regular volunteers, supplemented by hundreds of other volunteers on special workdays and a roster of paid contractors.
In the nearly two decades since that first workday, the organization has worked on 1,400 houses, revitalized 103 nonprofit or community spaces and replaced 24 substandard manufactured homes.
Close to 11,000 volunteers have donated more than 80,000 hours of their time.
MONEY AND EFFORT
Even with all the donated labor and discounted materials Rebuilding Together receives, there’s a continuing need for money.
The organization keeps going with “philanthropy, corporate sponsorships, state and federal grants, and good old nice people who feel everyone should have a warm home,” Larkin said.
Once the money is raised it needs to be matched to a project. A grant targeted to assist the elderly couldn’t be used to repair the home of a young couple with children, for example.
Recipients also can’t be too well off.
“Most of the grants that we receive are available to people with 50% or below the area median income,” Larkin said. “But I try to find a way to do something for everybody.”
The organization focuses on homeowners who are elderly, are veterans or active military, have a disability, or are parents/guardians with underage children in the home.
When the call for assistance comes in, one of two staff handymen visit the house, examine the problem and determine what it would take to fix. They also do a safety check — safe homes are a core mission for Rebuilding Together.
Often, it’s an involved repair that needs the skills of a licensed tradesman or contractor.
But sometimes it’s a quick fix the handyman can make himself.
Whenever possible, Larkin said, that’s what they try to do. A $100 replacement of a leaky faucet can become a $1,000 rotted floor if it languishes for months on the waiting list.
She recalled a woman in Texas calling to ask for help for her mother, who lived alone in Saratoga County in a house where the front door would no longer latched shut.
Construction manager Chris Northrop saw the simple fix and made it.
“I love that,” Larkin said. “She could call from Texas and we could go and fix it.”
The elderly resident, crying with joy, grabbed Northrop in a hug.
“He made her day,” Larkin said.
More common examples of on-the-spot fixes made during that initial inspection would be a new smoke detector or carbon monoxide detector, either of which provides a big payoff in safety for a small investment of time and money.
But the bigger problems can’t be fixed on the spot and often come in multiples: A resident says their roof is shot and the inspection reveals their steps and handrails are broken, too.
“Then of course the goal is, where do they fit, what grant would work for them and do we have the money to do this?” Larkin said. “Sometimes we need two or three grants.”
HELPING OLDER RESIDENTS
There’s no common thread in the 140 to 150 projects Rebuilding Together Saratoga County undertakes each year, Larkin said, but many of the people who benefit are senior citizens who don’t want to leave their homes but don’t have the money to catch up with the work that needs to be done.
“We find a lot of requests are coming in from our older residents because that’s what they’re trying to do — ‘How can we modify our home to stay here?’ ”
So it was with Sandra Hladik. She and her husband, Joseph, have lived in their house since it was built 28 years ago, but no longer had money to make the major repairs that began to crop up as the structure aged. The leaky roof was a big one, the kind of problem Larkin hates to see go unfixed and create more damage over time.
The organization replaced the roof, and also added the wheelchair lift and ramp so Hladik could get around better.
“I was kind of not able to get out of my house,” she said. “When they built me the ramp, I was able to come outside all on my own. I was able to wave goodbye to my grandchildren. I was able to go to the mailbox.” Hladik added, “Rebuilding Together gave me independence again.”
The year 2021 has been a mixed bag for Rebuilding Together Saratoga County. They were able to get back to full speed on repair projects after the COVID-related slowdown in 2020. But some of the government grants and private philanthropy the organization relies on halted in 2020, and the impact is being felt in 2021.
On the plus side, ReShop For The Good, the storefront retail shop the organization operates in Ballston Spa, continues to sell donated household items both magnificent and mundane as a fundraising stream.
And the local homebuilding industry maintains its support for the organization: Rebuilding Together and Habitat for Humanity are the beneficiaries of the annual Showcase of Homes staged by the Saratoga Builders Association.
As with many nonprofits, the organization’s ability to help others is proportional to the support the organization itself receives, and there’s always the desire to do more.
The call may come from one of the social services agencies Rebuilding Together works with or it may come directly from a homeowner. But always the calls come, and they can’t always be answered, which is difficult for an organization that runs on compassion.
“It’s hard,” Larkin said. “Why are they calling? They’re not calling to say hi, they’re calling because they’re in trouble.”