UChicago volunteers tackle home repairs in Englewood with Rebuilding Together Metro Chicago

For the second consecutive year, Facilities Services joined with Rebuilding Together Metro Chicago to make a positive impact on our surrounding communities.

This year, volunteers from FS, students from The Laboratory Schools and staff from the Office of Civic Engagement gathered at the Englewood home of Tommie and Bessie Harris, a retired couple who needed assistance with a multitude of home repairs.

The Harris’, who have been married for 51 years, have lived on the 5700 block of South Seeley Street for nearly 35 years. During their youth, the Harris’ were neighbors in Alabama before they moved to Chicago in the 1960s.

Bessie, 71, loves to cook and ran a catering business for more than 20 years. Decorative wicker baskets from those days decorate the walls in her kitchen. Tommie, 76, worked as a handy man. They are proud parents to a grown son, Tommie Jr.

As longtime residents of Englewood, they have seen the city -- and their neighborhood in particular -- change over the years. Harris Sr., a handyman himself, has made various improvements throughout his home to repair deteriorating exterior siding, faulty plumbing and landscaping around their residence.

“The years go by and we just can’t keep on top of all,” Bessie said.

Tommie Sr.’s extensive collection of tools stored in the basement was one of the areas the Harris’ needed help to cull and organize. The scope of work for the home included painting, organizing, grounds keeping and general clean up. 

The first step of the rebuilding process is to identify and choose a home. RBT has an extensive process to pre-select homes from which to choose. Some homes, like the Harris family’s residence, have been on the list for several years. Once chosen, a formal meet-and-greet is established at the home. Wish lists are clearly identified and scope of work begins to develop.

“As the process develops, it is imperative to always think, ‘warm, safe and dry,’” said Brandon Rux, manager of grounds and landscape services and co-chair of the Rebuilding Together initiative, along with Kevin Ahn, facilities manager.

“We know we can do so much more, but it is imperative to add long-lasting value than just cosmetic upgrades,” Rux said.

This year, Facilities Services’ carpenters and electricians made major improvements to the home in two ways: removing and replacing the siding around the home and supplying new electrical feeds to the home. This effort was completed days prior to the actual build date but was deemed necessary to ensure this would be a home the Harris’ could live in comfortably for years to come.

“The trades members of the FS team take great pride in being able to have a positive impact on our families home.  They contributed greatly to the goal of making the home safe and dry,” said Kevin Austin, director, campus and residential services. 

Saturday, April 26 was the actual build date for groups like ours to begin the daylong project. Our volunteers arrived at the home at 8 a.m. and were assigned roles and responsibilities. One of the most demanding tasks was to clean and organize the basement, which in addition to various tools had also been filled with three decades of possessions. With a large dumpster bin out front, volunteers worked with the Harris family to remove items, one by one, until they could see the floor again. “It was amazing. It has been years since we have seen the floor,” Bessie Harris said

In addition to general cleanup, our volunteers painted, caulked, performed landscape maintenance around the home and built shelving racks for storage. New downspouts, door handles, light fixtures, accessible grab bars in the shower and a new gas stove were also supplied and installed for the Harris family. 

“The Rebuilding Together project was unique in that U-High students were able to see first-hand the immediate difference they were making in the community," said Hannah Evans, service learning coordinator for The Laboratory Schools. “The students really enjoyed meeting Mr. and Mrs. Harris, which gave them a personal connection to the project and created a more meaningful experience.”

-- By Kevin Ahn, facilities manager

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