Rhode Island Spotlight: Neighbors Helping Neighbors

neighbor1It was a busy and productive weekend last month as dozens of volunteers fanned out across the southern part of RI to tackle construction projects that the owners of nine homes could not afford to do themselves. Neighbors Helping Neighbors RI is the outgrowth of a Faith in Action group based out of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Charlestown. Three years ago the group formed its own non-profit organization and has grown to 125 members that go well beyond the church. The focus: people in need living in South County

neighbor3“In order for them to stay in their homes, sometimes they just need a boost,” said Greg Plunkett, a retired school superintendent from Connecticut who now lives in Charlestown. His expertise is on the administrative side, helping line up and coordinate the volunteers. “There are places where they can go to get clothing, there are places where they can go to get assistance for heat, there are places they can go and get assistance for food. As far we know, we’re one of the only places that can help them with repairs to their homes. And so we feel in a small way we can help them stay in their homes and stay independent.”

The organization typically schedules one big weekend in the spring and one in the fall to do multiple projects throughout South County. On the third weekend of May, we caught up with a painting crew at the home of a 96-year-old woman in Charlestown, whose house was transformed by the end of the day.

Just down the road in Westerly, a crew was hard at work rebuilding a rotted deck in the backyard of a disabled low-income homeowner. Roger Stedman, who began in construction 50 years ago, worked alongside his son-in-law, two grandsons and a friend to complete the deck over two days. Stedman is a member of St. Andrew  church and has watched the program grow.

“The resident can’t afford to hire someone to paint, or perhaps even to pay for the paint, because paint is pretty expensive today,” he said. “So if we come in and do some of that maintenance work for them, that allows them to continue to pay their mortgage, buy their pills and go get food.”

And in North Kingstown, Kay Cutting watched as a crew that included her daughter and son-in-law installed a ramp from her back door to her driveway. Mrs. Cutting has had increasing trouble walking, and stairs have become difficult to negotiate.

neighbor4“I was just overcome, overwhelmed,” Mrs. Cutting told us the week after the project was completed. “And I didn’t know it was going to be 20 feet long, this beautiful ramp. I never could have afforded it myself, and it’s not costing me a dime, which is just more overwhelming. So I saw God’s work right in front of me.”

All projects begin with a one-page application, which asks what needs to be done and the income level of the homeowner.

“We want to make sure we’re fair to everybody,” said Susan Jaquith, the president of Neighbors Helping Neighbors RI. “That we’re servicing real needs and not just maybe ‘I want to change the color of my living room walls.’ We don’t want to put our volunteers and funds on that kind of thing so we’re very careful.”

Last year the group did 27 projects.

neighbor2“The more jobs we do, the more our name gets known in South County and so the more requests we have for work,” Plunkett said. “And as those requests begin to increase it means we need funds, but in addition to that we need volunteers. When you think of South County, you think of the beach at Narragansett, you think of Watch Hill, you think of Newport, you think of all of these places where there’s a lot of wealth. But that’s not all there is in South County. There’s an awful lot of people who are seasonal workers, older people who are living on a fixed income, single parents.

So why this collective effort?

Jaquith said, “I guess it’s that look on the person’s face that makes you think, ‘That could be my mother, that could be me.'”

If you want to see the video version of this story go to RhodeIslandSpotlight.org. If you know of a person or organization who you think deserves the Spotlight, send an email to jim@RhodeIslandSpotlight.org

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