If you don’t already know about Rebuilding Together Oakland (RTO), I’m here to tell you what I know from my very recent hands-on experience as a donor and volunteer for this remarkable non-profit organization.
First let me say that I am not a skilled laborer. I am not a carpenter or a plumber or the fixer-upper type. I am more the type to hire those people. But I am tireless when I want to get something done. I can vacuum, sweep, scour sinks, wash dishes, clean, line cupboards, move furniture, white wash walls, and paint, all of which I did on two Saturdays, 8-5, in April.
But of course, I did not do this alone. I did it with a fabulous, 40-person team of volunteers made up of employees, clients, family and friends of our firm, Bell Investment Advisors, and a similar group from the law firm of Wendel, Rosen, Black and Dean, our business neighbors, who got us into this whole thing. It was an experience none of us will ever forget.
You have all seen those extreme home makeover shows on television at sometime or another. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as seeing those astonishing before-and-after results, especially when the recipient is someone, often elderly or disabled or disadvantaged in some way, who could never have made this happen themselves.
Such was the case with our April RTO project. RTO does not build homes like Habitat for Humanity, but rehabs homes for homeowners who qualify for such assistance. The homeowner in this case, whom we’ll call Annie, is an elderly, disabled widow in East Oakland who is helping to care for her three grandchildren. She and her husband had owned this home for over 50 years, when he died in 2001. The before situation we were about to tackle at 8 am that first Saturday was about as bad as you can imagine.
But no time for emotional reactions or leaving the scene. Drink your coffee, eat your muffin, get on your Rebuilding Together t-shirts, pick up a pair of rubber gloves, a hammer or broom or screwdriver and get going. A team leader or project manager will tell you what to do. Go!
By the end of the first day, we were hot, tired, hungry, and still in overwhelm. So much left to do! Not even halfway there. What about the plumbing? The broken faucet? Those cabinets? The door?
During the week, there was time for a full range of emotions and deep reflection. Compassion grew. Someone bought curtains for all the rooms; someone else bought bedding; someone else bought new kitchen stuff; someone else stopped by to clear the drains. There’s nothing quite like doing, rather than saying.
Somehow, by the end of our second Saturday, there we all were standing side by side, proud and pooped, laughing and (some of us) welling up with tears in front of our Rebuilding Together banner and our job well done – Annie and her grandchildren and a broad mix of volunteers – strangers no more, forever changed by our experience of each other.
Sometimes making a good life happen for someone else makes your own life better.