DANBURY Extreme makeover
DANBURY — Up until last week, Larry Stevenson had to duck cobwebs or squeeze past the piles of junk in his house.
The 70-year-old Vietnam War veteran’s home on Saddle Rock Road was filled with plants, DVDs, rabbit cages, old newspapers and an assortment of other knick-knacks that his late sister had accumulated over the years.
But last Friday an army of volunteers began literally shoveling the trash into dumpsters—the first step in an eight-week project to refurbish the worn down home.
“It’s incredible,” Stevenson said.
More than 50 volunteers with the Handy Dandy Man Ministry, a Brookfield-based organization, plan to clear out the home, paint the outside, repair the plumbing and boiler, and fill the home with new kitchen appliances and furniture.
Neighbors had long complained about the overgrown lawn and shabby painting, but Stevenson couldn’t afford a mower and had been unable remove the trash by himself after his sister, who was a hoarder, died.
The city was prepared to levy fines against Stevenson, but did not want to.
Instead, the director of veteran affairs, contacted Peter Brady, founder of the Handy Dandy Man Ministry, and asked if he could paint the home.
But Brady saw the filthy state of the house and knew he needed to do a full job.
“I said, ‘This is not right, this is not healthy,’” said Brady, who has spent 18 years organizing clean-ups and other volunteer efforts for those in need through the nonprofit.
“Just painting the front, painting the back is easy,” Brady said. “Give us a challenge. He gave us a challenge.”
By mid-day Tuesday, the volunteers had filled almost four dumpsters with trash. The day before, they had focused on the sister’s room, where thick cobwebs hung from the ceiling and DVDs, VHS tapes, newspapers and more covered the bed. The basement had bags of plastic fruit and rabbit cages from the 24 bunnies that used to live in the house.
The dining room was the worst, Brady said, with plants, dirt and cobwebs everywhere.
“You could hardly walk through,” he said.
Neighbors have been thrilled with the progress. Brady said some have walked by cheering, while one neighbor, who never knew Stevenson or Brady before, helped clean up the home on Monday.
Brady has raised about half of the $25,000 needed for the project. Residents and businesses can visit the organization’s website to donate money or items. Any left over money will go to Stevenson.
For part of the cleanup, the organization is covering Stevenson’s room in a hotel, where he took his first real shower since his broke over a year ago. He had used wipes to clean himself.
Daniel Hayes, the director of veteran affairs, said many Vietnam veterans, like Stevenson, never sought help for the trauma they experienced in the war.
The city has tried to step in to provide this support, said Hayes, who credited City Council and the mayor for enabling him to cut through any red tape to help veterans and prevent Stevenson from facing fines against his home.
“He’d end up losing his house,” Hayes said. “That’s something that happens in other towns and it doesn’t happen in Danbury.”
Stevenson served in the Army in Vietnam between August 1968 and August 1969.
”The only thing that kept us sane was the transistor radio,” Stevenson said. “That was your only contact with the outside world.”
He said he was frustrated by the anti-war marches back home.
”What are they protesting about?” Stevenson said. “We’re living this war. They’re nice and comfortable.”
When he returned home, his mother said he had ruined her life because she spent the year worrying about him. He didn’t want people to know he was a vet.
“You weren’t proud to wear the uniform,” he said.
Apart from his time in the Army, Stevenson has lived in Danbury all his life, moving into the home on Saddle Rock Road with his family at 16.
“I’m not one to move around a lot,” he said. “This is my home, my town.”
He has worked, now part-time, for Berkshire Foods for 44 years and lived in the house with his little sister, Nancy, until she died 2 1/2 years ago.
Nancy lost her job during the 2009 recession and never found another one, which meant it was up to Stevenson to support them.
“It cleared out most of my savings,” he said.
Most of the junk belonged to Nancy, but when he moves back into the home, he said he will only keep the basics, like his clothes, pots and pans.
He doesn’t want to squander his gift.
“I appreciate everything they’re doing for me,” Stevenson said. “This is a tremendous help. I couldn’t do it myself.”