Grantee Spotlight: rebuilding homes and repairing lives

"We got through the worst of it," whispered Audrey Bushnell into the ear of her trembling dog. She hugged him tightly and consoled him with kisses as the sharp clatter of hammers echoed from the ceiling of her mobile home. A team of workers was replacing Audrey's leaking roof. In all, 19 volunteers would work on her home throughout April to repair its significant damage - free of charge through local nonprofit Rebuilding Together Dutchess County.

Audrey and her husband Harold had rented an apartment above a laundromat for 30 years in Lakeville, Conn., where Harold worked for Arnoff Moving and Storage. When Audrey's parents died, she and Harold inherited the family home in Stanfordville, a hamlet in Dutchess County, NY.

For 10 years, Audrey and Harold spent what they could on small-scale maintenance projects. Now in their late 70s and getting by on Social Security, the couple has forgone caring for their home in order to afford basic necessities. When the outdoor stairs began to deteriorate and the kitchen lost hot water, the couple had no children or willing neighbors to offer support. They were the perfect candidates for Rebuilding Together Dutchess County, a grantee of the Northeast Dutchess Fund that rehabilitates the homes of low-income homeowners.

"Our mission is to bring the home back to a warm, safe, dry and independent living environment," says Christina Boryk, executive director of the organization, which is the local affiliate of a national nonprofit. "Often we are the last resort for these homeowners, and what sets us apart from other organizations is that our services are completely free."

Audrey and Harold's home is one of 23 projects that Rebuilding Together Dutchess County selected to take on this year. Last Saturday, on what's known as National Rebuilding Day, over 175 skilled workers and volunteers restored nine of the homes back to livable condition.

The Bushnells' mobile home received a complete transformation: roof replacement; plumbing repairs; energy efficient upgrades including weather-stripping and insulation; smoke and carbon monoxide detectors; electrical repairs; soffit and gutter repairs; a new outdoor staircase; and a repainted exterior.

"We take a whole house approach when we conduct our home inspections," says Christina. "Usually our homeowners don't want to ask for too much in their applications, but we go in and do everything we possibly can to rescue these homes."

Her organization spends roughly $25,000 on each home in the form of in-kind services and donations from dozens of companies throughout the area.

One of those companies, Just Exteriors Plus, Inc., has contributed nearly $13,000 in roofing materials and donated labor over the last four years. Bruce Peter, its founder (pictured at right with his crew), started his business in Lagrangeville, NY in 1978 with a strict standard of giving customers more than what they ask for. Though hailed for his exceptional work, Bruce remains humble. To him giving is an honor, not a favor.

"I was given the opportunity to serve a wonderful organization, so I took it. I took it because there are a lot of people who are less fortunate than I am," Bruce says matter-of-factly. "If I can help them in any way, I try to do it."

For the past five years, Berkshire Taconic's Northeast Dutchess Fund has awarded grant money to Rebuilding Together Dutchess County, while other nonprofit organizations and faith-based entities contribute gifts and volunteers.

"National Rebuilding Day is really a partnership between corporate sponsors, volunteers and other community partners," says Christina. "They want to address the need as much as we do."

And while it can be difficult for them to ask for help, those who turn to Rebuilding Together see their lives change for the better over the course of just a few weeks. Many are so appreciative they become volunteers. Others refer their friends and loved ones.

For Audrey Bushnell, the impact was apparent in her eyes and in the hugs she gave her volunteer crew.

"I'm just so happy," she said, fighting back tears. "I'm just so happy."