Homeowners Get A Helping Hand At 18th Annual Christmas In April

Andrea Shiell, County Times

HOLLYWOOD, Md. (May 1, 2008)—At a small house on Kennedy Court in Mechanicsville, Lisa Thomas stood in her back yard, surveying all the people on her property, some installing her new windows, others installing her new appliances, while still others installed new floors in her kitchen and bathrooms. Sonny Birch, founder of Birch Oil, was meanwhile cutting up pieces of a large tree with his chainsaw in her back yard. Her property was flooded with volunteers from across the county and from Century 21.

Thomas looked emotional as she saw all the people who had come to complete renovations on her home, all at no charge. The divorced mother of three lives at that house with two of her children, and if not for the crews on her property that day, she might have faced serious safety issues with her home, where she had lived for the last 20 years. “I’m trying not to cry,” she exclaimed, grinning wide as she fanned herself. “Words can’t explain it. I’m very grateful.”

Lisa was not the only person in St. Mary’s County to get a helping hand with her home on Saturday. Over 1,500 volunteers came together to repair a total of 23 homes, which got all manner of renovations and updates in what has become the ultimate yearly celebration of neighborly goodwill, Christmas In April. Down the street, on Holt Road, Representative Steny Hoyer made an appearance at the home of Georgiana and John Gray, who were getting a new roof, among other things.

Meanwhile, Executive Director Mary Anne Chasen juggled work at the warehouse on the county fairgrounds while answering numerous calls from different houses. She routed plumbers and electricians and equipment from venders to different work sites across the county, all while trying to sit for a moment and talk about this year’s Christmas in April event. “It’s a very hectic day,” she laughed. In the distance, volunteers were setting up Christmas trees decorated with bows and lights on the fairgrounds stage.

Christmas in April actually had its beginnings in Texas, but Chasen said that Maryland has one of the third largest programs in the county, which saw its 18th year of operations this past weekend.

“When you think about it, the way people used to help each other, they would start early in the morning and finish at the end of the day,” she said, likening the project to something similar to a traditional Amish barn-raising. Still, Chasen said that some of the houses on this year’s list had had crews working on them for weeks. House #5, for example, was in its eighth week of repairs, having had its floors replaced from extensive termite damage.

“Every house is different,” Chasen said, explaining that houses were chosen based on the extent of their problems, as well as the income of the families applying. “We wish we could pick every single home for every single family that applies,” she said, explaining that the criteria for selection had to be rather strict in order for money to stretch far enough.

To qualify for home repairs and renovations courtesy of Christmas in April, homeowners must be low-income. The majority earn between $12,000 and $18,000 per year. Chasen explained that the board established houses needing new roofs as first priorities, with wheelchair ramps coming in a close second. Projects ranged this year from eight-week behemoths involving roofing, flooring, heat pumps, and plumping, to lighter projects involving wheelchair ramps or landscaping. Some homes needed help with safety issues, such as the handrails that were installed for 85 year-old Charlotte Edwards on Wilson Road in Mechanicsville, while others needed CO monitors, deadbolts, or new windows. 12 homes received new roofs this year, while six homes received new entranceways, and many others got fresh coats of paint and new doors or sheetrock.

Chasen explained that their most expensive home repair project was a home on Hicks Drive in Leonardtown. “When you pull up you wonder why we chose it because it looks so nice,” she said, “but it’s a shell of a home inside.” On Saturday, crews from Hayden Electric completed a full electrical system overhaul on the home while HVAC specialists installed a new heat pump, and crews replaced all the flooring and windows. “They’re doing so much with that house they can’t even begin to list everything,” said Chasen, who had just gotten off the phone with one of her volunteers about the heat pump.

All of this work, of course, comes at a price. Chasen noted that none of it would be possible without donations and earnings from the group’s many fundraisers, some of which are headed by volunteer groups, including religious organizations or community groups like the Rotary Club or the Optimist Club. Every year, one of the biggest fundraisers is the Southern Maryland Farm Life Festival, which is sponsored by CMI General Contractors Inc. owner John Parlett, Jr.

“It all adds up,” said Chasen. “We say there’s 1,500 people volunteering, but really we have so many more who do fundraisers for us too.”

Some volunteers skipped what could have easily been a day in bed relaxing to pitch in for the effort. At Lisa Thomas’s house, “Crocket” Pulliam worked with his brothers “Puggie” and “Dragon” to install windows, even though he had recently gotten out of the hospital. Bob Houstin, who had recently had his fourth hip replacement surgery, manned the warehouse from his wheelchair with his wife, Virginia. “I still come over and do what I can,” he said.

At the picnic held that evening at the fairgrounds, volunteers came together to sip beer and eat dinner while listening to music and reflecting on the day’s work. Some had projects they would need to complete later, like James Morgan, who will be going back next Saturday to finish the siding and replace the gutters at the home he worked at that day.

Others talked more about how great it had been to give back. “I love it!” said Pat Russel, who had spent his day doing siding and painting, in addition to a complete yard cleanup. “Because you see someone who needs help, and you come out and there’s a big smile on their face.”

Russel’s colleague Charlie Roach stood next to him sipping a beer and grinning as though he was the one who had gotten his own house repaired. “You’re paying it forward,” he said, proudly.

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