PHILADELPHIA -- I'm dirty, sweaty and bone-tired. And I'm filled with a level of self-satisfaction that I've rarely achieved with anything else I've done.
I was one of a thousand or so volunteers working under the auspices of Rebuilding Together to restore 30 aging homes last month in the Overbrook section of West Philadelphia, all at no cost to their owners.
Jumping in wherever needed, I hung drywall, painted window frames and ripped out overgrown shrubs. Others helped rebuild porches, replace cabinets and appliances, lay new floors and do whatever else was necessary to turn these circa-1930 houses back into safe, healthy homes.
Volunteers for the three-day revitalization project came from as far away as Florida and Minnesota to pitch in. Conrad Pawlina took vacation time from his job as director of an assisted living facility in Minneapolis to act as a "house captain." He was a second-timer, as was Parker White, the 16-year-old son of a Rebuilding Together executive who spent the beginning of his summer break hauling this and carrying that.
Barry Slaff, a 23-year-old graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, was a rookie. He had a lot of time on his hands while in between programs and said he wanted to spend it volunteering rather than wasting it on video games. He helped me with the drywall and painting.
Working right alongside us, doing whatever they could to help, were many of the homes' low-income residents, who could never afford to do this on their own. They were people like Sarah Hall, who moved into her 62nd Street row house in 1971 and was amazed at all the volunteers who were busily working on her tree-lined street.
"This is a godsend," said Hall, 65, the neighborhood block captain who had to quit her job at Verizon to care for her mother. "My father was a plumber and electrician who took care of my house for me, but now he's gone. So this is a blessing, and you don't get many blessings."
Linda Bates, 54, has lived in her Overbrook home since the third grade and raised her two sons in the same house. Now, it's just her. After a career of taking care of elderly patients, she's on disability herself.
"I've seen this on TV, but I've never seen anything like this in person," she said as volunteers repaired floor joists, replaced her water heater, rebuilt her entire kitchen and treated the house for termites. "This is wonderful."
"A dream come true, a gift from God," is how Andrea Spencer, 45, described it. She works part time for $7 an hour at a supermarket to support herself, her two young boys and her husband, who has been out of work for some time. "We're so incredibly thankful," she said. "All of a sudden, we're not alone. It's a very profound feeling."
No, they're not alone. Rebuilding Together may not be as well-known as Habitat for Humanity. But whereas Habitat for Humanity builds new houses for needy families, Rebuilding Together provides critical repairs to nearly 10,000 homes per year.
Rebuilding Together's 200 affiliates throughout the country work with 200,000 volunteers, including skilled tradespeople and everyday citizens, to mend houses and stabilize neighborhoods.
Professional painter Isaac Harrison oversaw a crew of a dozen or so neophytes here, many of whom had never touched a paintbrush in their lives. He took particular delight in teaching them how to sand, prime and then paint.
Another painter, Ed Hirst, was hired to do the high work too dangerous for untrained volunteers. "I wanted to do it for free," he said, but such a donation was not permitted for liability reasons. "So I charged $4,000 for what was a $9,000 job. And I guarantee it's going to last 60 to 70 years."
Hirst ran a crew of 20 or so La Salle University student volunteers on several houses. Right next door, working on landscaping, was a group of young attorneys and would-be attorneys in the construction practices group of Pepper Hamilton, a downtown Philadelphia law firm.
Then there are the big-name corporate sponsors such as Lowe's Charitable and Educational Foundation, Choice Hotels and Wells Fargo, the and nonprofit supporters such as the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation and Carter's Kids.
Lowe's has donated $7 million worth of building materials since joining with Rebuilding Together in 2007. "We're incredibly passionate about giving back to the community," said James Blair, Lowe's market manager for the Philadelphia area.
The playground built here was the seventh for Carter's Kids, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting fitness and self-esteem among America's youth that was started by Carter Oosterhouse, host of HGTV's "Carter Can" and "Million Dollar Rooms."
Once a year, Rebuilding Together takes on an entire neighborhood. This time, the community-centric project was this transitional neighborhood in Philadelphia. Last year it was Denver, and the year before that it was New Orleans.
Typically, though, local Rebuilding Together branches go house by house and block by block, restoring houses and the lives of the people who live in them one at a time.
"We do this work throughout the city and throughout the year," said Carrie Rathmann, executive director of the Philadelphia affiliate.
Not every house or owner qualifies; there are income and other requirements. But there is always room for volunteers, corporate or otherwise. Like the roofer who just happened by and said he'd be glad to put on a roof a week at no cost if Rebuilding Together would provide the supplies. Or like Lowe's employee Messica McCleary, 24, from Maple Shade, N.J, who helped build the playground and is proud to say, "I made that."
Or Air Force veteran Lonnie Bowen, 66, who rode the trolley an hour each way from his North Philly home to "just come out here to see what I could do."
"I'm living in a veteran's home they remodeled three years ago," says Bowen, who served two tours in Vietnam. "When people do something for you, you try to do something for others."