Repairing Hearts and Homes

Having grown up with nine brothers and sisters, Betty Jo Hawkins-Emery knows a home isn’t just a place to lay your head. It’s more about the loved ones who dwell in it, who sometimes muddy the carpet and scribble on the walls, who make memories in every inch of the place that makes a house a home.

Team members from Boeing work on a house in OKCThe 60-year-old thought back to her days growing up in a full house and said it just wasn’t the same as an adult when she then bought her childhood home and settled back in. It was strangely empty without the buzz of energy that family brings to a home. Hawkins-Emery decided she and her husband (the late Theodore Emery) would take in foster children. Between 2007 and 2010, the couple cared for 17 foster children.

But the foster mom was blindsided this past year when she learned the home that meant so much to her—that she’d lived in more than 40 years and that provided a place to care for children in need—had devastating and dangerous flaws. The most serious: five gas leaks below the structure. Rattled by years of earthquakes and Oklahoma storms, the 89-year-old house was in dire need of repair.

Saddled with medical bills after her husband’s death, Betty connected with a contractor that referred her to Rebuilding Together OKC, a non-profit that makes home improvements, free of charge, to elderly, low-income homeowners. The volunteer group saved her home. “For little old ladies like me, the people at Rebuilding Together OKC are such a blessing,” she said. “Nobody wants to be put out of their home because it’s unlivable.”

Jennifer Thurman, Rebuilding Together OKC Executive Director, says she sees similar stories play out over and over: a homeowner who does without home insurance because other needs are more pressing. “They have to make tough decisions about how to use their limited funds and sometimes they prioritize things like food and medicine over home repairs,” Thurman said.

The non-profit takes stock of what absolutely needs repaired in a home and tackles those repairs first—the less urgent repairs sometimes have to wait. But that’s how it often goes when an organization relies on donations. Thurman often comes across heartbreaking stories of homeowners trying to make do in a home that needs updating to provide comfort and safety. She recalled a man whose bathroom wasn’t large enough to fit his wheelchair so he “literally had to get out of his wheelchair and drag himself across the floor to get into his bathtub.”

“No one should have to live that way,” Thurman said, adding the organization was able to widen his door-frame and install a “tub cutout,” or swinging door so he wouldn’t have to step over the tub wall. “Those are simple fixes that really help people stay safe at home.”

With the coldest months approaching, Thurman said she anticipates hearing from several homeowners when they encounter emergencies. “The first cold night when they realize their heat isn’t working, that’s when they call us,” she said. Winterizing efforts take place year-round, with volunteers making repairs like replacing windows or making windows more energy efficient, repairing heating systems and adding insulation.

Team members from Boeing work on a house in OKCThe need for services is escalating throughout Oklahoma County, Thurman said. Rebuilding Together OKC applications increased 17 percent in last year. In that same period, the organization completed 224 home projects, not nearly meeting the demand of 323 applications.

“We see that growth happening and also see it reflected in the number of older Americans,” Thurman said. “The population is growing and the need is growing. Right now the donations are not meeting the need. We have wait-lists for some of our services, especially for things like new roofs, which are very expensive.” They can always use more volunteers and donations to meet its growing need. Most people who give their time or money can imagine a loved one in these homeowners’ shoes one day.

Spilling over with gratitude about her home updates this year, Hawkins-Emery is a walking, talking billboard praising Rebuilding Together OKC. “The spirit of giving is so great in Oklahoma,” she said. “People are there to help you.”

Learn more about Rebuilding Together OKC, find volunteer and team-building opportunities, make a donation at rebuildingtogetherokc.org.

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