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'We are keeping people in their homes': United Way celebrates ‘A Brush with Kindness’ program

BEMIDJI -- After an accident left him a paraplegic, a local man was concerned that, with his young kids in upstairs bedrooms, he would never be able to get to them in case of a fire.

A wheelchair-bound woman was likely headed to a nursing home, unable to be released from the hospital to her house because there was no ramp at her home.

In both cases, the parties turned to Northwoods Habitat for Humanity, which through its "A Brush with Kindness" program was able to adequately address both scenarios; in the first converting a three-season porch on the main floor into two bedrooms and in the second adding a ramp to the home's exterior.

"There are lots of these kind of stories," said Geri Hickerson, executive director of the local Habitat chapter. "We just know that by launching this program, there's a niche that we're filling."

Northwoods Habitat for Humanity long has been known for its house-building programs. With volunteer labor, low-cost materials and donations, Habitat constructs new homes and sells them at no profit to families in need of decent housing.

"A Brush with Kindness" aims to improve the existing housing stock and keep people in their homes. Some houses have fallen into such disrepair that condemnation has been mentioned.

"There is never a day I've regretted it," Hickerson said of the program. "Truly, we are keeping people in their homes."

Just as families who benefit from Habitat's homes must pay back the mortgage, "A Brush with Kindness" families must usually repay building materials. The nationwide program was expanded to Bemidji in 2011, thanks in part to a Venture Grant from the United Way of Bemidji Area, a program designed to help nonprofits implement programs to address unmet human service needs.

"This is a great example of what the United Way aspires to have happen through its Venture Grants, to allow an agency to try something new," said Tanya Hasbargen, executive director of the United Way of Bemidji Area, adding that the programs are designed to benefit the entire community.

It all started in 2010, when Northwoods Habitat fielded a call from a social worker at the Bemidji hospital. A male patient had endured several surgeries due to complications from diabetes. He was set to be released but could not go home because there was no ramp for a wheelchair.

As it turned out, Habitat's ReStore -- which resells donated building materials, appliances and furniture -- was in the process of accepting materials donated by Enbridge as it moved out of its temporary facilities along U.S. Highway 2. Among that material was a ramp, which ReStore was planning to sell for $75.

"Our volunteers went over and for $75 this guy got a ramp on his house," Hickerson said. While they were there, volunteers also put up some bases for a planned railing along a deck, which the man had been planning to do before he took ill. Those railings helped ensure his safety while he'd be out on the deck in his wheelchair.

After that, Hickerson began taking note of similar calls received by Habitat, perhaps those asking for help to address a leaky roof, a rotten porch or old siding. The callers were low-income, many of whom were seniors on fixed incomes who did not qualify for other programs for one reason or another.

Northwoods Habitat had previously discussed the "A Brush with Kindness" program, which was then experiencing success in the Twin Cities, but had until then opted to focus on its home-building programs and the establishment of its ReStore.

"I just said ... 'There is a critical need that I think Habitat can fill,'" she recalled.

And the board agreed. The program officially launched the next spring, tackling nine projects in its first year, including a new deck for a woman whose own was rotten and falling to pieces. Other projects included new siding. One project benefitted a woman whose garage did not have gutters, when it rained and then froze, the woman fell and broke her ankle.

"So we put gutters on her garage," Hickerson said.

Habitat is able to purchase building materials at low cost and volunteers donate time, so families, when expected to pay back the materials, are able to do so in small increments over the length of the loan, and, if they are able-bodied, are also expected to help with the physical work, just as they are in the construction of new Habitat homes.

For larger projects, Habitat is able through a federal grant to tackle much larger projects, such as installing a new roof, which does not have to be repaid. For these "critical home repair" projects, the homeowners otherwise would be facing $8,000 or more in bills.

One woman's Nymore home was set to benefit from a paint job and an exterior ramp. Once on site, though, workers knew she also needed a new roof, but funding wasn't then available.

Once funding was obtained for the new roof as as a critical home repair, Hickerson was able to call her with the good news.

"She was so grateful for the paint job and the ramp so she could get in and out of her house safely," Hickerson said. "She was ecstatic and nearly in tears when we told her we could come in and fix her roof because by then it was starting to leak."