Stomping slush from their shoes after a morning of work, 45 people entered the Grace Memorial Church basement covered in grime, dust, plaster smears, wood shavings and dirt and began systematically emptying boxes of pizza. On a day off for many, Martin Luther King Day was a day on for the volunteers from around the country who gathered in the 900 block of Bryn Mawr Road in the Upper Hill District Monday.
Americorps volunteers signed on with Rebuilding Together affiliates in their home cities to join the Pittsburgh affiliate making home repairs at five addresses, all of which are expected to be completed by Thursday.
Betsy Huston of Davenport, Iowa, eating a plain cheese slice, acknowledged she is not a typical AmeriCorps volunteer.
“I ran away to have a second childhood,” after retiring as a teacher, she said. “I’ve developed some skill sets and learned to do things I never would have thought I could do. The neatest thing is to be around all these youngsters.” Most volunteers are in their 20s and 30s. “I tell my friends, ‘You should see their passion and the hard work they do.’”
The home-improvement blitz coincides with the launch of a year-long intervention that FOCUS Pittsburgh is planning for the block. The social services agency is undertaking a block-by-block approach to strengthening the entire Hill District, starting with improving housing stock.
Rebuilding Together was a partner in FOCUS’s pilot effort in the 2900 block of Webster Avenue. Robert Bowden, FOCUS’s community organizer, said the two blocks are similar in the stagnancy of income and deferred maintenance.
“We try to stabilize long-term residents in light of market changes,” said Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh’s chief operating officer Alan Sisco. “The longer people can be safe in their homes, the longer they can stay in them.”
“The core of this is the health and well-being of residents,” Mr. Bowden told the gathering. “Thanks for coming to Pittsburgh. You know, your life is kinda not your own. You build providence and karma when you benefit others, and you are growing yourselves into being more formidable human beings.”
During lunch, Ms. Huston introduced herself to a man eating pizza beside her.
“I’m Betsy,” she said, shaking the hand of Antwan McKamey, a construction staffer for Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh. He wore a respirator on his forehead. “What’s your specialty?”
“Everything,” he said, laughing. The respirator was for work he was doing prepping basement walls for reinforcement.
A Rebuilding staffer called out, “Time to get back to work!” and the volunteers headed back out. Mr. McKamey later said: “If Rebuilding Together’s part of it, I’m part of it. This morning, they had me giving tools out at the different homes,” as well as the basement work.
Nathan Mallory, Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh’s construction manager, said the influx of volunteers is a godsend.
“I normally run five guys at a time, so these volunteers in four days are doing what would take months,” he said. “It’s super-intrusive for homeowners, but in four days, we’ll be out of their hair.”
When the Americorps volunteers leave, Rebuilding crews will have just seven homes left to stabilize for the FOCUS project on Bryn Mawr.