Neighbors Helping Neighbors: Rebuilding Together in Portland

June 21, 2017

By Sam Stadler

Rebuilding Together was founded by a small group in Midland, Texas. They volunteered their time and skills to help repair their neighbors’ homes, because the homeowners couldn’t afford the repairs. Their founding mantra became “Neighbors helping neighbors.” They formed the group, Christmas in April, in 1973, and in 43 years it has grown into the national, non-profit housing program, Rebuilding Together. The program tackles about 10,000 rebuild projects nationwide with nearly 100,000 volunteers participating in the effort.

For 6 of the last 7 years, SRG has volunteered with the program – one year missed due to an all office obligation that conflicted with the volunteer day. Each year is unique – new homes, new homeowners, and new projects to tackle. Every March, house captains are assigned homes. We call the homeowner and schedule a visit to talk through the things that they are hoping to have done. After we meet them and confirm the task list, we walk them through the program and tell them what we hope to accomplish. We make materials lists and head to Lowes. We gather our team. We prep the house the week before the “build day.” The last Saturday of April is when it all happens. Somehow the rain always seems to stay away even though it’s April in Oregon. Mike Malone, the program’s executive director, says it’s the Fathers at the University of Portland. I am less pious.

This year we helped a family with a wide variety of projects. Their back deck had fallen off, so we patched the holes it had left in the side of the house and built a safety railing across the sliding glass door that now leads to an 8-foot drop to the patio. We gave the kitchen a makeover with new flooring, countertops, and upper cabinets, and added fresh paint and trim. The house was across the street from an elementary school, so the team used the basketball court to cut the linoleum flooring into the right shape. We cleared out years of junk and trash from the yard and storage sheds. In total, over 5 heavy-duty truck loads were taken to be sorted at another facility into donatable items, recycling, scrap metal, yard waste, and garbage. This included several transmissions, multiple doghouses, a plastic play house, and an entire dining set. Finally, we cleaned up the yard by pulling weeds in the flower beds and raking up leaves and pine needles.

All said and done, it was a full 8-hour day, and not the typical 8-hour day that a group of architects is used to! We don’t ever get to see the fruits of our labor in mere hours; we don’t get to see each other sweat; we don’t get to see each other in jeans and t-shirts and covered in dirt. We rarely get to see each other’s kids and significant others, and we rarely get the opportunity to all work together on the same project. There is a special type of bonding that happens when you work alongside your coworkers in a different setting than usual.

You can get a lot done with 20 people for 8 hours, and it’s amazing when you realize this group is part of 1,200 people in town doing the same thing. Volunteering is a privilege when you reflect on the opportunity to work with a group of people who cares more about someone else than themselves. You’re a part of something bigger than anything you could possibly undertake by yourself. It’s the epitome of teamwork, of giving back, and for lack of a better word – caring. Everyone is there for the exact same reason – they care. Neighbors helping neighbors.

Interestingly, something about this year has us thinking about things a little broader than in previous years. At a national level and at a local level, we have seen some troubling trends. One thing is certain, our work at Rebuilding Together is not enough. If people can make such an impact on one day of the year for their community, why do we have to wait a year to do it again? Why not every 6 months? Every 3 months? Every month? Every week? Drumroll please…EVERY DAY?

My goal is to do what I can and to work with others to be more proactive than passive. If Rebuilding Together teaches us anything, it’s that proactive organized efforts around a common goal can result in truly powerful outcomes.

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Sam Stadler

AIA, LEED AP

Senior Associate