Although Rebuilding Together is a national organization, for the past 21 years the North Suburban Chicago chapter specifically has brought together hundreds in the community into a network of people that can be simply described as “neighbors helping neighbors.” Through the essential work of social workers, more than 500 skilled and unskilled volunteers, faith organizations, community leaders, individual and group donors, an active board, and many more, RT improves the homes and lives of low-income homeowners with their services, aiding 50 to 60 homes annually with projects as small as painting or landscaping and as large as completely restoring a kitchen or replacing a leaky roof.
With growing success, it’s hard to believe that the group started in 1996 with a small group from the Men’s Club at the parish Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Glenview, along with a few others. In the early ’90s, the group would do a project once a year as part of the Christmas in April chapter in metropolitan Chicago, and one project in the suburbs.
“We started off very modestly raising funds and then using those funds to rehab and renovate homes, primarily at that time of senior citizens,” says Jim Riley, one of the founding board members. “But as we developed relationships and took on more homes, we went from about one home a year for the first couple years, then three homes, then five and 10 and 15, and expanded our volunteer groups and our sponsors and got larger donations from organizations in the area.”
As 2007 came and the Great Recession hit, need for home improvement spiked. Applications rose from about a dozen to the current 100 or so applications a year. “We saw more need than we had ever before, and that was a significant turning point for us in terms of an increased need of our help and resources from other groups and organizations,” says Riley.
Since then, the group has worked to increase their scope and help more homeowners yearly. As social workers refer cases to the organization, members of the board, led by President Linda Baudhuin, review applications monthly, assess homes, and meet with potential homeowners that they can help. After careful review, they choose projects where they feel they can have the greatest impact based on relative need. House Captains then take over and organize individual projects to lead volunteers on the annual Rebuilding Day at the end of April and early May. With leftover resources, projects not completed on this day that need only skilled workers are then addressed throughout the rest of the year.
Even with limited resources, the organization has left a profound impact on a number of members of the community. While it’s hard for many to imagine, there are a great number of homeowners in wealthy communities that need help, and it can be incredibly difficult to reach out in times of need. LCSW Jeanne Rosser, a social services administrator for New Trier Township, says, “I think these are difficult communities from which to fall from grace. [Rebuilding Together] is very sensitive and thoughtful and understanding of the homeowners they work with in such a way that the recipient feels empowered. You don’t want anyone to feel diminished by the fact they asked for help.”
“They are generally folks who have worked hard all their lives,” says Executive Director Sharon Riley. “Many have volunteered and given back to others, never expecting that they might need help in the future. It is often a challenge for them to receive our help, so we’re very sensitive to the privilege of serving the folks who are referred to us. It really is a wonderful group of people.”
One of these homeowners, 62-year-old Kim Moore, was taking care of her mother while holding a full-time job when parts of her home in Skokie were falling to ruin. After an assessment and beginning work on the house, her mother passed away. However, RT insisted on finishing the project in memory of her mother, repainting the inside of the house, redoing a bathroom, and fixing a leaking roof. “I have never seen so many people get so much done in so little time,” says Moore. “They are a great asset to the senior community because there was no way we could do that ourselves while i was taking care of my mom. They truly are superb people.”
As need expands, the group aims to serve even more homeowners like Moore and complete more projects every year. With groups like Northwestern University that joined recently, and long-time donors of labor, materials, and resources like Best of 2017 winner Get Dwell, and Kinzie Builders LLC, they are continuing their efforts with the network of hands, passionate about giving to those in stressful times in their lives.
“I was a leader in a company that was very interested in giving back, and the owner asked me to go look at [Rebuilding Together] to participate,” says Steve Spinell, current owner of Kinzie Builders, who has worked with RT for more than 17 years and serves on the board. “It was really simple for me to say yes. It’s a great board and a very worthy cause.”
Get Dwell owner Darryl Rose agrees, saying it was a “match made in heaven,” and now they complete one or two charity projects every year for Rebuilding Together. “Donate time, resources, or money — it’s an organization that really puts all that stuff to work.”
“They’re a godsend for those of us who were, and are, in desperate straits,” says Moore. “They truly are a group of people that come from all walks of life and do a great job, and it was such a blessing to have them help.”
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Manon Blackman is a Make It Better intern and rising senior at Northwestern University, pursuing a dual-degree in journalism and vocal performance. When she’s not in class, you can find her running, experimenting with vegan cooking, and drinking lots of coffee.