Rebuilding Together in Alachua County

2015.03 106When we hear the term, “people in need,” we think of different things. We might think of someone asking for change, children without lunch money, victims of natural disaster, or, at least as often as not, people living in some other country.

What we don’t like to think about is our own hometown.
Yet that’s the first thing that came to mind for Gainesville native, Melissa Miller, when as a high school student she began volunteering for construction-based mission work. Inspired by the efforts she saw in remote towns and landscapes, Miller came home to Gainesville on fire to begin the same kind of labor here in Alachua County: the labor of helping low income, elderly and disabled homeowners to make necessary safety repairs on their homes to improve their quality of life, and subsequently the quality of life in Gainesville.

“She actually had the vision, that early in her life,” explains RD Bonner, Director of Programs for Rebuilding Together of North Central Florida. “This is what she felt called to do.”

Miller started by gathering high school friends and fellow youth group members and getting them excited for the cause. They would meet up on Saturdays with $20 and a sack lunch and go around doing home repairs for people in town.

After earning her degree in building construction at the University of Florida, Miller and her core group of fellow volunteers founded the nonprofit group, Rebuilding Gainesville. By 2008, the group’s growth prompted them to align with national nonprofit, Rebuilding Together, and they changed their name to Rebuilding Together North Central Florida.

And they’ve been growing ever since.
According to the group’s data, 2014 saw over 400 local volunteers complete 33 projects with more than 4,500 hours of labor. In total, they estimate that Rebuilding Together NCF added more than $122,745 of value to Alachua County in that single year.

How Does it Work?
Home repair projects are chosen on a case-by-case basis that takes into account both the need of the homeowner and the nature of the repair.

In order to be considered, homeowners are asked to come into the Rebuilding Together NCF office and fill out an application during open application cycles which typically run from January to June. Health and safety are always predominate concerns, and most service recipients fall into one or more of four categories: low income, disabled, elderly or veteran.

One of the most important questions on the application is how willing is the owner to get themselves, their friends and their family involved.

“Right there on the first day we have them write on the application, are you willing to help us and to get your friends and family involved in the process?” admits Bonner. “We really want it to be an educational experience for everyone involved.”

Of course, owner involvement means more than simply increasing know-how in the local populace. It’s more about building community.

“We did one [project] recently where there were as many family members of the homeowner as there were volunteers. That’s the ultimate vision. What we’re trying to convey is that we’re not rebuilding for you, we’re rebuilding together.”

Who Can Volunteer?
Volunteers come from all over the county, both as individuals and as groups. Bonner finds that the majority of the volunteers for each project come from Rebuilding Together NCF’s local corporate, church and service club sponsors, each of which assembles teams of representatives to take on projects. While some groups have plenty of experienced repair workers within their unit (the Rotary Club, Walmart and local construction companies for example), others are assigned skilled laborers to help with plumbing, electric and other more nuanced tasks. Youth volunteers as young as 14 are also welcome, although all those under 18 require adult accompaniment.

Regardless of the makeup of the group, many of the people who volunteer, including friends and family of the homeowner, end up asking to be a part of future projects.

“As we’re leaving the worksite, everyone seems to feel like they had the most fun out of anyone – and that includes the homeowner and their family! People find that it feels really good first to be a part of a larger, collaborative effort, but second in something that’s all happening locally.”

Do They Need My Help?
Although part of a national group, all the funding, resources and labor for Rebuilding Together NCF come from Alachua County. In turn, all the donations go directly to work in
our community.

In 2011, a study identified 7,500 substandard homes in Alachua County – a number that Bonner estimates to have grown significantly in the five years since. “Given the economy since then and the ageing housing stock, I would have to estimate that number has far exceeded what it once was, despite our best efforts,” he explains. “This is definitely a cause where the need is far greater than our capacity to serve.”

How you choose to help depends on personal skill set, time and availability. Bonner suggest that the best impact you can make is to engage a group you’re a part of to become a sponsor, do a little fundraising, then take on a project of your own. Of course, individuals are also invited to join specific projects, particularly skilled laborers.

“If you are a roofer or a plumber and you’re reading this article, you should call me!” laughs Bonner. The easiest way to contribute is simply to write out a check. Rebuilding Together has found that for every dollar donated, they’re able to create four dollars’ worth of market value in repairs. Bonner promises,
“We will stretch your dollar!”

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