James Matthews, project chairman of the MLK Service Day project in Decatur, compares the work done through the annual effort to the barn raisings at which Americans in an earlier time all gathered for a day to help their neighbors build a barn.
“This is not charity—it’s neighbors helping neighbors,” he said. “Most of the people whose homes we work on have lived in Decatur 40 years or more. Some of the homes have been owned by the same families over several generations. They are the glue that has kept this wonderful Decatur community together. I see it as our way of saying ‘thank you.’”
Now in its ninth year, the project brings together a number of local organizations such as Leadership DeKalb and local Scout troops as well as individual volunteers. Last year, the number of volunteers peaked at more than 1,200. “Without help from volunteer organizations and the city of Decatur, we wouldn’t be able to do it,” said Susan Cobleigh, executive director of the Decatur Preservation Alliance, the organization that spearheads the project.
Working Saturday through Monday in half-day shifts the volunteers use the Solarium in Oakhurst as the headquarters from which they receive assignments. The Solarium also is the site of a celebration cookout for all volunteers after the work wraps up at 5 p.m. on Monday.
While volunteers are not required to have specific skills, those who are proficient at carpentry, home repair, painting, plumbing, gardening and other such skills are encouraged to make their talents known.
“It’s grown steadily over the years,” Cobleigh said. She added that it’s now almost a year-round project since work on the 2012 MLK Service Day project will start in March. The process, she said, involves publicizing the project to homeowners, accepting applications and making community and technical assessments.
“We have to be sure that the applicant is the homeowner and that he or she falls within our guidelines,” said Cobleigh, who explained that the services are for older low-income homeowners. “Then we must do a technical assessment—visiting the home to see what needs to be done. We make a realistic assessment of what we can do. Some projects are just too big or require expertise we don’t have. We only have that weekend to finish the projects and most of the volunteers are unskilled.”
The home improvements are done for the safety and comfort of the homeowner, and are never for cosmetic reasons, she said, noting that improvements for energy efficiency are common. Cobleigh said that most of the work is done in Oakhurst because that’s where the greatest need is. “Many people in that area live on Social Security alone. It’s hard enough for them to pay property taxes, let alone make home repairs.”
In addition to unskilled volunteers, a number of local contractors pitch in to help. Among those who have been part of the project for years is Michelle Bray of Bray Electrical, who along with some of her employees works on houses during the entire long weekend.
Homes built before the 1950s rarely had insulation, Bray explained. “The attic wiring was what we call knob-n-tubing wiring. It’s not designed to be covered, so you can’t safely put insulation over it. We have to rewire the attics before they can be insulated.” That’s the bulk of the work Bray and her staff perform though there are other small projects as well.
Bray said that donating the services is a way of “paying it forward.” “We love the city of Decatur. There are such good people here. The volunteers are great to work with; the homeowners are really appreciative. I get a charge out of helping,” she said.
The 2011 MLK Service Day project will be Jan. 15-17. For more information or to volunteer contact Lee Ann Harvey of Volunteer! Decatur. She can be reached by phone at (678) 553-6548 or by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. The website is www.decaturga.com