Home Improvement Projects for Low-Income Families

The Problem

I started planning my Senior Service Project in November of 2006 knowing that I wanted to come up with a project that truly made a difference. I wanted to take on something big that would make a difference for more than just the time that I would be there. I love to create things: art, music, and sports all fit into this idea of creation for me. I also wanted to help families, and I thought about my own home. After a fire in my house a few years ago, I learned the real value of having a stable and comfortable place to live. My project plan came together: home improvement projects for low-income families. I realized that some simple changes in the appearance of a house can make a huge change in outlooks within a home. I started out close to home, knowing that I did not only want to help out a few individual families, but that I wanted to inspire others to work for the community. In this way I could contribute to a cycle of people helping people. I went to my old school, St. Martin of Tours, and they agreed to be my sponsor. Part of my project would be educating the 8th graders there on the importance of community service and giving them the opportunity to help me with my project. Then the real challenge came: finding families to help. At first I thought that it would be easy because there are plenty of low-income people who need a helping hand in their homes. However, I couldn’t just knock on people’s doors or take away anyone’s pride. I started figuring out my criteria: the families should have children and they should own their homes so that the improvements will have a lasting impact. I talked to many different organizations: from St. Martin’s own parish outreach to city programs to independent charities. I was striking out everywhere – it is difficult to find people who will give over their homes and their stories to complete strangers. However, soon I got in touch with Habitat for Humanity and spoke with Marge Peterson, a committee chairperson, and she agreed to meet with me and suggest a few families. After I met with the families I would be working with, my project went into full swing. I presented what I would be doing and the issues surrounding economic disadvantages to the St. Martin’s soon-to-be 8th grade class. I put schedules together, made supply lists, and researched how to do all of these projects. At family one’s home in North San Jose we decided to landscape the small backyard and paint the room of the three youngest children. At family two’s home in Downtown San Jose we planned to do some heavy duty organization. We would also replace all of the carpet upstairs, paint a room, repair broken tiles, as well as other little things (fixing pipes, putting in cabinet latches, etc.). Soon I realized that the most difficult part of my project would be looking for donations. I did not spend any money on my project, so I had to find other ways to get supplies and services. The supply list totaled over $2,000, and the final amount far exceeded this number (it turned out to be around $8,000, though it is hard to estimate). I looked in the phone book and make hundreds of calls. Talking to managers on the phone, bringing proposals into home improvement stores, researching the best types of materials online, and working out schedules and plans with the families became a huge part of my summer. Three St. Martin’s 8th graders came to help me on one of the landscaping work days. Their work made a huge difference and they learned a lot throughout the day. I also had many of my friends come to help paint. My dad was an invaluable resource for tips on projects and the use of his pick-up truck. Although Habitat for Humanity was my unofficial sponsor, I did not work very directly with them except for using them to get in touch with the families. St. Martin’s was my official sponsor so I kept them updated on what I had done all summer. So far, dozens of companies have helped me out, the entire backyard has been completed (brand new plants, sod, stone walkway, and stained concrete porch), the kid’s room has been painted (Finding Nemo themed), and one home has become organized. All new carpet is in Family Two’s home, as well as a freshly painted spare room. I replaced the front row of tiles of the countertop in the kitchen because they were falling off. On the way are new flooring in the spare room and crown molding in the kid’s room. The most obvious beneficiaries from my project would be the families themselves, having received direct improvements to their homes. However, I came to realize that the greatest gift to these families was the hope that there are people in the world willing to help. When asked about the experience, the mother in family one responded, “This has opened my eyes to how kind, caring, and sweet young people can be.” She also suggested that my project taught her a lot: she wrote, “I learned that if you have your mind set on something you can do it!” I feel the most accomplished when I see that others are inspired. My project also affected the 8th graders who saw my presentation and who volunteered for a day. They have been shown what is possible through community service and have become more interested. One student responded that she learned about teamwork and looks forward to doing more community service. I am still finishing up my project with small tile touch ups and possible crown molding. I already have ideas for my next projects now that I have seen what I can accomplish. I gained much more than I ever expected to from this project. I learned that anything is possible when a person is well organized and believes in his or her potential. Although I believed this idea hypothetically before my project, I have now seen it as reality and can use this belief in possibilities to accomplish many things in the future. I learned important organizational skills. With so many components of a project at one time, I needed to know what was happening everywhere as well as how to act quickly. My binder with all my notes, calendars, phone numbers, business cards, and receipts became my most valuable possession. I also learned how to relate to families from different backgrounds. My project reaffirmed my belief that everyone needs a little help and has a lot of help to give to others. I probably learned more from the families I worked with than they learned from me. I learned valuable communication skills. I now have the confidence and knowledge to approach someone and explain my project. I can call any store and ask for a donation. I know the papers needed and the best way to present myself, which will be very useful in the future. I also learned various constructions skills due to the nature of my project. I learned how to landscape: preparing soil, using a roto-tiller, laying sod, staining concrete, and installing pavers. I learned how to lay tile, pull up carpet, and much more. The most memorable part of this project was the look on the mother’s face when she saw her completed backyard for the first time. Her joy was contagious throughout the day as she would pop her head in and ask if we needed anything as we worked. I especially remember how stunned the father was when he came home from work and saw the yard. He was speechless and did not believe that it was really his backyard. I realized how much of a difference I had made when they kept talking about how much their six children would enjoy it. I would tell other young people to keep doing as much volunteer work as possible until they find something that they love doing. It is not worth it if they do not enjoy the work. Once you find a passion, take charge and create a project that will show you your potential!

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