Monday, May 19, 2014

Entry No. 1: Last Saturday I Helped Rebuild a House

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Welcome to Subtext.

In these weekly columns we will discuss all matters of life, love, happiness, and heartache, the going ons just below the surface. We'll examine what it's like to be human living in today's world. I encourage you discuss, I encourage you to disagree, even with me. This blog was created to be a forum, like a town center for our expansive family. Enjoy your stay. Vote early and vote often.

Entry No. 1: Last Saturday I Helped Rebuild a House
There's an organization in Connecticut called HomeFront. It's similar to Habitat for Humanity, except that for HomeFront aims to fix a broken house, not build a new one. From their website:
"HomeFront is a community-based, volunteer-driven home repair program that provides FREE repairs to low-income homeowners, thus enabling them to remain in their homes with an improved quality of life. Currently serving Fairfield, Hartford and New Haven Counties in Connecticut; and Westchester County, New York."
This year our house was a one bedroom in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The owners, Cal and Maxine, were a young, Jamaican couple who had lived in the house eight years with their four kids, I'm guessing ages 6 to 17. The outdoor staircases into the house were falling down. There were gaps in the outside panelling that was letting in rain and run off, flooding the basement. The window in the bathroom was also letting in rain so the sheet rock was disintegrating, the tiles were falling off, and mold was growing. The legs of the banister up into the kids attic/bedrooms had been kicked out. 

The interior walls of the house were painted a puce green, the parent’s bedroom was a dark, sort of dirty, brown color, and the paint on all the doors, trim and moulding were yellowing and either scuffed, marked, or chipping. As always, I was assigned to paint duty. I am a tape and brush master. So twenty-five volunteers from my dad’s church showed up between the hours of 7:30 am and 7:15 pm to donate their elbow grease. It's a pretty awe-inspiring sight to see so many people crammed into small spaces, attempting to get everything done at once.

"Every year the women come in and they attack theyard and they transform it, it is just amazing to watch.And they engaged the children. The yards matter to thefamilies' happiness even more than the structuralimprovements. It’s where play happens. It’s how theirlives are presented to the community."

This is my dad, W. Michael Crouch. Dad's been volunteering with Homefront for 14 years, a project leader for the last 8. And boy has he got some stories. FYI, graphic content ahead. One house that belonged to a hoarder with cats had piles of fecal matter everywhere, a bathtub full of it; one house had carpet so molded to the floor it had to be removed with a metal gardening hoe; and one house had a meat locker in the basement that, while being removed up the cellar stairs, emptied its rotting and liquified contents onto a very unlucky volunteer. Considering the colorful array of houses he’s worked on, this little guy with its rickety stairs seemed to me liked a walk in the park. 

Every year we stumble upon a task much more problematic that we'd first anticipated. (See above.) Dad calls it a “can of worms problem". 
This year it was the shower wall in the central bathroom. It was disintegrating and molding. Once the men began removing the tiles to patch the sheetrock, more tiles would fall off and they could see how truly bad the integrity of the wall had become. 

"What should be done," Dad explained, "was that the whole wall should be taken apart down to the studs, allowed to dry out for a week, then re-sheet rocked, and then re-tiled...That’s what should be done," he said.  His voice sounded strained. There wasn't time to re-sheet rock the whole wall, we only had a day. There is only so much that can be fixed. Sometimes it feels so dramatic it's like asking "Which child do we save?" He hoped the patch work his men did on the wall was going to be sufficient for a few years, but there was no way to really know. 
Dad’s a bleeding heart with a work ethic like a freight train. When it comes to HomeFront, his struggle is never about how to fix a wall or build a fence - it's accepting that he can't actually do what all needs to be done to these houses. There are only 24 hours in a day and he is one man capable of only so much. Every year he gets caught between the responsibility he feels to these families, how he much sympathy he feels for them, and what he is actually able to give. He talks a lot about needing to let “good enough be enough”.
For me, working on these houses isn't about the houses at all, it’s always been about the people who live in them. They reached out to the organization for help and then we enter their houses like an army brigade. But who are they? I try to feel out how they feel about their houses. I try to stress the importance of their experience of the project over the success of my painting. It's important that they feel at home in their new homes. I weigh questions like, how can we balance the quality of our improvements with the quality of our personal efforts? And I wonder, sadly, would the family help us at all?

This question isn't unfounded. Last year’s family sat on lawn chairs by the sidewalk, fanning themselves and playing loud music on their boom box. The teenagers would saddle up to the food table every half hour like clock work and bring back handfuls of cookies to their chairs. Then they'd sit there and keep on with their sitting. I got pretty mad that those able bodied boys, old enough to wield hammers, and smart enough to play it cool, only picked themselves up out of 
their chairs to eat our food. My resentment levels were high 
that year.

 That's when I discovered that an outreach event like HomeFront is as much about us volunteers as it is about the families we're helping. We may be aiming for altruism, but it still doesn't feel good to see our efforts received with casual indifference. All of us approach the event with differing expectations: how and how much we’ll be fulfilled, how and how much we’ll give, how we measure the success of the day, even different ideas of what is and isn't appropriate. Like to prove my point, there was one volunteer this year who stomped around the house loudly denouncing “Oh God! This is disgusting! That’s gross! How can people live like this!?” All who give are not equal.

So I was relieved to see that this family was different. When I arrived at the house I saw Cal working with my dad to build a retaining wall for street runoff. Later when he didn't quite know how to help, he offered a hand wherever he could. 
Relief washed over me. All who receive are not equal! 

The kids were pitching in too. The littlest girl - she was missing her two front teeth - she was busy in the garden. I became friendly with her on our walk-through two weeks prior. She walked me up to her bedroom. It was cramped and smelled like mildew. A sheet hung on a cord across a corner of the room for a makeshift closet. I asked her what dreams she had for her bedroom, maybe there was something she’d change? She crouched down on her Disney Princess rug and pointed. She wished Belle’s dress was pink and not yellow, that the castle was pink and not grey, and that the trees were pink and not green. I couldn't help laughing then when I saw her Saturday morning planting pink tulips in the garden.

As the day went on the kids fell off the work wagon one by one and onto the couch in front of the television. It's understandable for the younger kids to have tired quickly. But the older kids, the 13 and 17 year old -? I was baffled. 

While Maxine was making dinner, and Cal was still painting the trim in the living room, and I was still painting the banister (only my dad and I were left of the volunteers), the kids were still sprawled on the couch. They were watching a movie called "White Chicks" which they knew well enough to quote. The irony didn't escape me. I couldn't help but wonder how the adults could still be working, and could have been so giving with their gratitude while the kids could have been suddenly so turned off to it. I was sad for these kids that they were missing out on the personal rewards that come from working as hard as we had all done that day and their parents were continuing to do.

It was difficult to leave the house that night. We had accomplished so much but there was so much left unfinished. So much we couldn't have fixed anyway. The couch cushions were still shredded and the rugs were still thread bare. 

I spoke with my dad a week after HomeFront Day. He said he had been back to the house twice since then to finish the bathroom and patch a huge hole in the wall of the master bedroom. He said the parents had taken the initiative to install a new kitchen faucet and were going to finished grouting the tub and floor tiles. They were going to paint the master bedroom a soft yellow. Dad was so pleased. "They now understand what needs to be done, what he needs to learn how to do. There is still no electricity in his bedroom and only one working outlet in the living room. They're going to have to call in an electrician to fix that. That we didn't get everything finished teachers him that he can do things too."

“This was a good family," said my dad. “All of these homes we’ve been going to are really a mess. This was one of the best because of the people. They’re doing the best they can. They go to church every Sunday together."

"We taught him to fish," he laughed.

For more on HomeFront go to


  1. So, today I have read all your blogs from the most recent to this first. Though I have enjoyed all of them, and appreciate that you bravely open your heart in your writing, I think that this particular piece is my favorite so far. I say this not to take anything away from the others, but this one relates something about you and your father that is new to me and that I appreciate learning. Of course I have known that your father was a "bleeding heart," as are most of our family. You express an understanding of mission that takes many people uyears to understand, that it is as much about the volunteers as it is about those receiving their largess. As you reflect on those taht seem not to participate or seem ungrateful, remember how difficult it is to accept help and to admit the need for help. Remember that to need this kind of assistance is embarrassing and that folks deal with their feelings in different ways, some more constructively than others. This is not to say that sometimes people simply are not grateful or that sometimes they simply feel entitled, however, most do feel thankful for your kind of help. The insight that not volunteers are the same is also true. Sometimes those of us who volunteer do not understand how our attitude may be perceived by our partners in a project such as the one you experienced. Sometimes the response is to be expected due to a percieved superiority on the part of folks who may see themselves as the "saviours' of those they are partnering with in such a project.
    I guess I kind of wrote a little ujnintended blog here myself. Sorry to be so verbose.

  2. Yeah, that was verbose, but I think you said was I was trying to say more succinctly than I did. I'm interested in How and Why we function in the world the way we do. I'm curious to take these ideas with me on my next big volunteer event.

    Thanks for writing, Uncle Steve. I'm glad you're verbose :)