Rebuilding Together Valley of the Sun organized several hundred volunteers to paint homes and build wheelchair ramps at a mobile home park in Arizona.

By Jim Tuttle and Omar L. Gallaga

Health, Housing
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Visuals by Jim Tuttle | Story by Omar L. Gallaga

It got to the point where the trip up three stairs to get into her home became something Kelly Oliver dreaded every day.

Oliver, who lives in a mobile-home community, Orange Grove Estates in Glendale, Arizona, has had knee cartilage and nerve issues so severe that it was causing her to fall as she navigated those steps.

“The pain is like, I would never wish it on my worst enemy,” she says. “It doesn’t stop. And I’m moaning and crying.”

There are medical issues she’s trying to address, but the basic problem of getting out of her home to shop and exercise, and getting back inside was one that turned out to have a solution. Rebuilding Together Valley of the Sun, an Arizona-based affiliate of a national nonprofit organization with more than 300 chapters, sent a crew of about 20 volunteers from American Express to build a gradual-rise ramp, making her 1971-built mobile home accessible. It was part of a larger Rock & Roll Paint-A-Thon event Rebuilding Together holds with AmEx every year.

“I feel like I have a new home,” Oliver said, after the one-day project was complete.

Volunteers finish painting Kelly Oliver’s home after her new ramp is completed during the 2019 Rock & Roll Paint-A-Thon at Orange Grove Estates in Glendale, Arizona. “It’s amazing,” Oliver said. “I haven’t felt so happy in a long time.”

Rebuilding Together VOTS takes on several home-revitalization projects a month in a part of the country that has a large senior and military-veteran population. The projects may involve painting, adding accessibility features for disabled or elderly applicants, or doing major repair work to make a home livable.

Jake Wright, deputy director of the organization, says that many projects, such as providing air conditioning to counter the state’s searing summer heat, allow seniors to continue living in their homes or to return to their homes after a medical crisis.

In one recent case, Wright said, Rebuilding Together put handrails, custom steps, and a shower seat in a home for a woman returning from assisted living. “As soon as I walked in the door and she saw I was wearing a Rebuilding Together shirt, she started crying and said, ‘You have no idea how much it means to me to be back in my home with my kids and with my family and to have people visit with me.’ “

The national group formed in the early 1970s out of Texas and has grown to include affiliates in 39 states with about 100,000 volunteers overall.

Jake Wright, deputy director of Rebuilding Together Valley of the Sun, greets Kelly Oliver on the front porch of her home. “We repair homes and revitalize communities,” Wright said. “But most importantly, we rebuild lives by doing those two things.”

The Arizona group also helps organizations such as Boys and Girls Clubs and local schools in cities such as Phoenix with playground construction and other facility improvements. Wright says that Rebuilding Together is trying to cover a large area that includes most of the state with only three full-time employees addressing a large stack of applications waiting for assistance. Rebuilding Together tries to partner with other nonprofits that do referrals and with for-profit companies that can provide volunteers and financial or material donations.

For her ramp addition, Kelly Oliver spent the day with workers whom she said improved her life not just by constructing and painting, but by spending time with her. “I’ll probably never see these people again, but they made my life in so many ways, not just painting my place, but listening, smiling, talking to me, laughing with me… They cared.”