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Volunteers Repair Homes of Elderly, Disabled

April 20, 1992

POOLESVILLE, Md. (AP) _ When Neville Smith lost her job as a school bus driver, she was afraid she would never be able to fix the leaky roof on the house she built for herself 30 years ago.

But on Saturday, 20 or so workers will trudge down the path through the pine trees on her 4 1/2 acres just north of town to put on a new roof, paint the trim and do repairs.

It won’t cost her a cent.

The repairs will be courtesy of Christmas in April, a nationwide network of volunteers that was started 19 years ago by a Texas Sunday School teacher. The beneficiaries are elderly or disabled people of modest means who own their homes.

The organization’s headquarters in Washington says 2,400 homes will be rehabilitated this year by 62,000 volunteers in 210 cities and towns spread across 26 states.

Matt Johnson, who builds houses for a living and is team captain for the work on Smith’s home, said material is either donated or purchased with donated funds. The home is chosen by a selection committee and most work is done in one day, the last Saturday in April.

″It’s really a program that seems to have a particular appeal to smaller towns,″ said banker Tom Bower of Ann Arbor, Mich., who organized a new program this year for Ann Arbor and the rest of Washtenaw County. ″There tends to be more of a connectedness between individuals in those communities.″

Take Neville Smith, for instance.

She was laid off from her school bus job at the end of January, after 13 years. The moss was beginning to take over her roof and it leaked in five places. She knew about Christmas in April, because it was active in the Poolesville area last year also.

″Since I don’t have any money for the shingles, I asked my niece if I was eligible,″ she said. ″She said Matthew was doing it this year up my way, so I asked him and they came down and looked at it.″

In Bremerton, Wash., Michelle Cook, director of the Bremerton Home Builders Association, which spearheaded a program that is fixing up the homes of six elderly women, said they were selected from among 20.

″We picked the ones that we felt were more in need,″ said Cook. ″We are not looking at trying to just do somebody’s remodeling project.″

The largest metropolitan area with a Christmas in April program is Chicago, where several hundred skilled and unskilled volunteers will fix five homes in the city and three in the suburbs. The program is in its first year.

The local committee has obtained the support of city and Cook County officials, said Allen Rafalson, a public relations man who has volunteered his services.

″We have to be concerned about security in some of the areas we are going to,″ Rafalson said.

Katrina Wollenberg, president-elect of the Junior League of Palo Alto, Calif., and a national board member of Christmas in April U.S.A., said about 1,400 volunteers will take part in California’s mid-Peninsula area.

For the second year, they will be working, among other places, in poor neighborhoods of East Palo Alto, doing such things as roofing, plumbing repairs and replacing broken windows.

The first program was started in 1973 by Bobby Trimble, an oil scout in Midland, Texas, who was teaching a young adult Sunday School class at Alamo Heights Baptist Church.

″We began work on women’s homes that had no husband,″ he said. ″It didn’t make any difference their age, if they had a need for a roof or to fix a door, fix a fence or work on an air conditioner.″

Other churches joined them and they worked on 16 houses in Midland.

By the early 1980s, the program had expanded to other Texas cities. A similar program was launched in the Washington, D.C., area, in 1983 and went national in 1988.

Since 1983, says the organization, 8,100 homes have been rehabilitated, helping more than 32,000 homeowners and involving more than 144,000 volunteers.

″A lot of people would not have a place to live in if it had not been for Christmas in April,″ said Trimble, who still runs the Midland program and is on the national board.

Frances Vaughn, 76, of Washington, a widow who still works as a law office mail clerk, agreed.

″In the back room, if I had had to sleep in there, I wouldn’t have been able to, because the water was coming down like it was raining outside,″ she said. ″I was in my deepest despair, and Christmas in April lifted me up.″

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