Linda and Richard King have lived in a white, two-story house on Carrie Street for 12 years.
In that time, they have seen at least five houses boarded up along the short street in the city’s Northside neighborhood. They have seen pipes stolen and basements flooded, sidewalks crumbled and torn up, peeling paint and overgrown lawns.
As much as the Kings would like to keep their house in mint condition, they haven’t the stamina, health or resources to do so anymore. Which is why, when a dozen volunteers showed up to their home Saturday with ladders, brushes, rollers and paint, they couldn’t be more grateful.
“I was very surprised and very thankful,” said Richard King, whose health has declined in recent years. “I’m standing here and can’t do nothing. I feel very thankful.”
It all started with a letter one summer day from Mayor Gary McCarthy. Other homeowners along Carrie Street and Foster Avenue also received the letter, which outlined a new Habitat for Humanity program that Schenectady’s affiliate was interested in bringing to the city.
About two years ago, Habitat for Humanity International launched A Brush with Kindness, a program designed to serve low-income homeowners who struggle to maintain the exterior of their homes. Volunteers target homeowners most in need — like an elderly or disabled person who can’t climb a ladder — and perform minor repairs and renovations to their home. The projects are small and cosmetic in nature, like a fresh coat of paint, repairing steps or basic landscaping.
“For the last 30 years, Habitat’s focus has really been putting new homeowners in homes,” said Jeff Clark, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Schenectady County. “Our focus has always been on helping people get out of substandard conditions. Well, at some point, somebody said, ‘What about the current homeowners who are older and maybe on a fixed income and their houses are falling apart? Why aren’t we doing something for them?’ So to work with existing homeowners is a new direction, but it’s not a real big leap for us.”
Habitat teamed up with the city’s Home Ownership Made Easy in Schenectady program to identify a neighborhood that would benefit and then have city code enforcement officials make a list of homes most in need of some beautification. After their work is done in Northside, they will branch out into other neighborhoods.
“Codes made two sweeps over a two-week period,” said Clark. “And what’s different about that is that instead of handing out citations, they handed out letters saying, ‘Look, these are the problems that we see, and we have a chance to help fix some of this stuff.’ ”
The day was muggy, and the overcast sky threatened rain at any moment, which would halt many of the fix-up projects. Volunteers swarmed Foster Avenue between Seneca and Nott streets, peppering lawns and ladders and sidewalks every few houses or so. They bagged litter from sidewalks and lawns, painted fire hydrants a shiny red, repainted foundations and shutters and touched up lacy iron railings on balconies.
In jeans and a collared T-shirt, McCarthy milled about a command tent Saturday outside the city’s Department of Public Works garage on Foster Avenue, where Goose Hill Neighborhood Association President Camille Sasinowski greeted residents and handed out food and refreshments to volunteers.
“Sometimes in the past, people have been really afraid to put money into their property because if you’ve got a house across the street that’s dilapidated or run-down, why would you want to fix up your property? You’re not going to see any return on it,” said McCarthy. “We’re trying to get back to that old school mentality: You fix up your house, and then I fix up my house to try to keep up with you, and then she’s fixing up her house. So you get the positive reinforcement, as opposed to the negative.”
It was barely 11 a.m. and Habitat volunteer Virginia Newton could already see a difference at the Kings’ house. This was the day’s biggest project. There were dozens of projects lined up for Saturday, but none required repainting the exterior of an entire house like this.
“We were hoping to get six to eight volunteers, and we got a dozen people,” she said, looking out at the fresh white paint and black trim.
Newton has volunteered with Habitat for the last nine years, heading out most Wednesdays and Saturdays for a full day of manual labor. But she found the lighter work associated with A Brush with Kindness to be fulfilling in a different way.
“It’s a perfect plan, and it expands our reach beyond our Habitat group of regulars to everyone else in the community,” she said.
In addition to Habitat volunteers, workers turned out from Union College, Price Chopper and other community organizations. The sight of them all toiling away at her home on a muggy morning warmed Linda King’s heart so much the 61-year-old came up with a plan.
“This is really amazing,” she said. “This is what I want to do when I get ready to retire. I want to volunteer.”