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Volunteer Repairperson

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How long does it take to build a 60-foot wheelchair ramp? In one county in New Jersey, that depends on how many volunteers come out.

On Saturdays, a dedicated group of handymen and women can be spotted in Somerset County building ramps for people in wheelchairs. Some build the frames for the ramps, leading to the houses. Others lay down planks or install handrails. With about 12 volunteers, a 60-foot ramp takes about seven hours to complete.

Seeing the fruits of your labor could be reward enough. But the best part, says Bill Crosby, is watching the reaction of a person who has just received a wheelchair ramp.

"The look on their face the first time they come out the door and see that ramp there -- it's just unbelievable," Crosby says. "They feel free. Hey, I can go sit on the front porch. I can go down to the driveway and go to the mailbox.... And the volunteers have told me just watching that makes the whole thing worthwhile."

Crosby is the coordinator of the office of volunteer services in Somerset County. The county started the Handyman Program five years ago. In addition to building ramps, volunteers do minor home repairs for seniors and people with disabilities throughout the county.

Repairing leaky faucets, replacing light bulbs, installing grab bars in bathrooms -- these are just a handful of the activities performed by volunteer repair people. But the list is endless. There are also sticky doors, broken locks and bathroom fans that need fixing. One volunteer replaced a senior's mailbox after a snowplow hit it. So as a fix-it volunteer, you never know what you're going to get!

Volunteer repair people may work at community centers, theaters, museums, furniture banks, shelters and animal rescues. Organizations that serve seniors or people with disabilities often employ repair volunteers, sending them to people's houses for minor home repairs. But just about any nonprofit can use a good handyperson for odd jobs around the building.

In addition to gaining handy skills, repair volunteers help to solve people's problems. They also make their homes and buildings safer.

Oliva Torres is the only volunteer at Somerset County's Handyman Program with a pink tool belt. "I bought a leather one, and I went to the place where they make belts, and I had it dyed," she says. "All the boys tease me."

A teacher by day, Torres volunteers evenings and weekends. With her toolbox and pink tool belt, she visits seniors' homes to do minor repairs. She fixes door hinges and cabinet doors. She also installs grab bars in showers, or along hallways or stairwells.

"We do anything to make their lives a little easier," says Torres. Some of her clients are elderly and unsteady on their feet. Others are disabled and in wheelchairs.

Many of the people Torres visits want to tell her stories. So she chats while she works. "They're very proud," she adds. "They all tell you, 'Before, I used to do my own things. I don't like to ask for help, but I'm sorry I now have to.'"

Torres learned her repair skills from a handy neighbor, by watching what he did, and asking him to teach her. She also received some training through the Handyman Program.

Even the simplest repairs go a long way to improve lives. After Torres fixed a door lock, one woman told her that she finally felt secure in her home. After Torres changed a light bulb, another woman told her "you have given me the light."

When Joe Deveaux lost everything in a fire, a food and furniture bank helped him get through the winter. Now he gives back to the organization, volunteering three to five times a week.

A marine mechanic by trade, Deveaux fixes practically everything. The furniture bank receives dressers, beds, chairs, toys and other items, and gives them to people in need. Occasionally the furniture that comes in needs minor work. So some days Deveaux finds himself gluing a chair leg back on, or doing other repairs.

He's a jack-of-all-trades at the center. Deveaux mops floors, helps with fundraising drives, and serves customers, taking them to the food shelves. He also does various repair jobs around the building. He fixes doors or repairs the carts that transport food and furniture.

Once he even fixed a flat tire on a wheelchair. "A gentleman came in just around Christmastime in a wheelchair," Deveaux says. "He wondered why it was hard going through the snow.... I noticed he had a flat tire, so I fixed that up for him, and he went on his way, and he was happy. You get all kinds of people popping in here.

"There's no shortage of work around here," adds Deveaux. But he enjoys helping people. "It makes you feel good," he says. "A lot of them are gracious that what we give them sustains them for a little while...."

As a maintenance volunteer at a shelter, Rick Aubrey fixed cupboards, taps and lights. But as a retired teacher and guidance counselor, he also found that the shelter's tenants confided in him.

"Some of them really started talking to me about things -- things that were bothering them, or things they'd been through," he says. "Most of them are either drug or alcohol recoverers, or recovering from some type of mental disability. It takes a while when a stranger comes in... But it got to the point afterwards where I'd go in and say 'Hi John,' and I'd get a 'Hi Rick.'"

After seven years of volunteering at the shelter, Aubrey not only got to know the tenants, he felt like one of the staff. He recently moved away, though he continues to volunteer.

"I've had a pretty good life.... I'm retired now. I have time, and I'd like to give something back to society," he says. "I love helping people. So this is just one way of doing it."

How to Get Involved

Organizations that help seniors and people with disabilities may need repair volunteers. But other nonprofits like museums, theatres, shelters, rescues, food banks and community centers may also benefit from repair volunteers. Look for volunteer jobs titled "handyman," "handyperson," "fix-it," "repair," "maintenance" or "property maintenance."

Organizations often seek volunteers who already have good repair skills. However, some places may offer training. Volunteers may be required to bring their own tools. And jobs can be fairly physically demanding, with tasks like climbing ladders and lifting objects.

Provides tips and tricks for do-it-yourself home repairs and home improvement projects

The Family Handyman Magazine
Offers advice and information on do-it-yourself projects

Volunteer Match
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