“Oh, no! Honey, I prayed to God last night that you wouldn’t be back here.”
This is not the way that I’d expect to be greeted by a client on my second day at the same job. But she didn’t mean it the way it sounds out of context.
Vern and I arrived on a Thursday to a little trailer up on a hill with a wide view of the Tucson Mountains. We were investigating a water leak which was pouring into the void at forty gallons an hour. It was a bit of a mystery, as there was no obvious outpouring or plant growth except for where gray water drained into the yard. But the main line ran from the meter, up the pitted, rocky driveway, and under the trailer all the way to the far side, where it connected to the house and then ran to the water heater on the street side. The leak could have been anywhere or in multiple places but it was certainly nowhere obvious.
Just to ensure it wasn’t in the pipes under the house we could access, because I heard running water, and also because I wanted to, I decided it would be best to take some skirting off and go investigate with a flashlight. It was dark and moist under there from ages-old drips coming from some of the drain lines, but on the street side at least there was plenty of crawling room so I explored about to the middle of the house until I could be sure that those lines weren’t pouring the forty gallons an hour. There were, however, a few droplets coming steadily from the calcified old plastic piping to the bathrooms, leading me to believe it would be best to replumb the whole house.
As I was coming out, I heard Ms. Willard – as her friend Dave, who greeted us initially, called her – yelling at Vern. “You let that baby girl crawl under my trailer?!” She was leaning her head out the bedroom window which overlooked our workspace and stared at me in shock and disbelief as I came out unscathed and unconcerned.
“I do this all the time,” I said with a shrug and nonchalant smile. She shook her head at me.
Vern and I started to dig for the waterline, and ended up with almost an eight-foot trench (“maybe it’s just a little further this way…”). I threw my jacket off as the sun shone strong on our shoulders. Ms. Willard came out with coffee and observed me heaving massive piles of red dirt around in her yard. “How did you get into this sort of work?” she asked me.
“I volunteered.” I grinned to show her I was having fun and kept digging.
Vern asked her for a wire coat hanger and cut it into two rods to try and locate the waterline. I was delighted at the opportunity to use witchcraft at work. We found the waterline in the exact center of the house, barely six inches underground and making our sixteen-inch-deep trench feel quite silly. It was ancient and encased in rusty flakes that chipped off at the slightest touch, destroying our initial idea of attaching it to the near side of the trailer and bypassing the busted part. The whole thing was begging for death.
When I told Ms. Willard we would be back the next day and collected all the necessary documents, she asked, “So I’m approved, then?”
“Of course,” I said, not even realizing that was a question. She hugged me out of relief. She’d been putting up with having her water off for two weeks by the time we came, and plumbers had estimated the cost of repairs at thousands of dollars.
When Albert, Vern, and I came back on Monday to get the real business done, aside from expressing her wish that I wasn’t there to endanger myself again, Ms. Willard offered us coffee and homemade banana bread. “I just couldn’t sleep last night worrying about this,” she said, “so I made this to help me calm down.”
I did my part in being the smallest and youngest person there and helped Albert repipe under the trailer while Vern dug the trench alongside the old waterline. Ms. Willard was not pleased about this. “Where’s your mask?” she demanded. I fetched a dust mask from the car. “Tie your hair up in a bun so it doesn’t get stuff in it! Put this bandana around it. Wear this jacket.”
“I’m not even going under at this point,” I protested, as I passed Albert, who was lying under the house, a new coupling. There was considerably less room to wiggle on the far side, and he was using bits of skirting and scrap plywood as a bed. I considered it distinctly unfair that she’d let Albert go under with just a T-shirt.
“Put the damn jacket on!”
When it was my turn to bring the main new Pex lines towards the back of the trailer I became more grateful for the jacket. A fact about pack rats that I didn’t know before is that they store cacti in insulation, eat the cacti, and leave the spines. They had been doing that under this house for years. I’m no stranger to cactus spines at this point, but it’s been a week and I am still finding them in my body.
In a quieter moment I crouched on the bathroom floor, inside, next to a hole I’d drilled and waited for Albert to send me the new toilet supply line. Ms. Willard waited with me. “I’m sorry I’m so distracted and not much help today,” she said suddenly, and I looked up to realize she had tears running down her cheeks. “I just was waiting on this doctor’s appointment, and now my paperwork hasn’t been processed and I don’t know if I have cancer in my throat, too, and all this…”
A reason I like CHRPA is that usually I am faced with problems I can fix. This was not one of them.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. I set the drill down. “Do you want a hug?”
She did. I patted her back and held her. “I keep telling all these women in my life to be strong,” she said. “Now I gotta do that, too.”
Her daughters came to visit that day, as did her twelve-year-old granddaughter, who helped pull up the kitchen supply lines. Ms. Willard pointed at me and bragged to her granddaughter. “See this girl?” she said. “She’s been crawling under that house all day, with all those spiders and whatnot!” I waved to her on my way out the door.
Vern, a champion among champions, dug the entire trench himself. Every time I’d go back to the truck to get something he would be a few feet closer to the meter, swinging a pickaxe non-stop. By the end of the day he was done, and so were we. We left it nearly ready to be hooked in.
I was not assigned to go back the next day and see the final result. Ms. Willard made me keep the jacket and bandana. I will not forget about her and I hope that our work relieved some part of the heavy burden on her shoulders that kept her up at night, baking banana bread.
On Tuesday night around 10pm, the heavens opened up and rain poured down for almost 24 hours. Rain in the desert is unlike the temperamental Eastern storms. The streets flood, the ever-present sun is disconcertingly absent, the air tastes vastly different and dry riverbeds run with brown water. Flowers open up, and swarms of enervated insects crowd the air.
Wednesday was my first full day of work at Community Home Repair. Heeding my new coworkers’ warnings, I took the bus to avoid getting soaked and damaging my bike in the thigh-high puddles. At 6am, when I got on the bus, the sky barely had any light to it. Despite the gloomy morning, I found a friendly environment in the office. I received two CHRPA shirts and a hat, gloves, and a pocketknife. My teammate Dustin and I set out in Daedalus, one of the official trucks, a little after 7 for the first job of the day. I had very little idea what to expect, and it’s a good thing because if someone had warned me I probably would have stayed behind.
The first job was a clogged kitchen sink in a mobile home. I’ve unclogged a sink or two before, I thought. You just get a plunger or poke around with a coat hanger or dump Draino in it until something happens, right?
But CHRPA doesn’t not get paid to unclog sinks with plungers. I made two new friends that day. First, the Snake. An electric and air powered machine with a body vaguely reminiscent of a shop vacuum cleaner, a long neck, and a metal extension with a swirly tip that reaches unknowable lengths out of the neck and swirled around when turned on.
Then there was the Drain King. A rubber bladder that attaches to the end of a hose, which fills up until it can’t handle the pressure anymore and spits high-powered bursts of water down a pipe to dislodge whatever dares stand in its way. You know in cartoons when someone pinches a running hose, it swells up to ridiculous size, and they shoot it at their unwitting friend? It’s that, but bent to good purpose.
After testing the water and noting that the sink indeed did not drain, we carefully sidestepped a skeletal house cat with matted fur that periodically sneezed huge chunks of green mucus on the floor to get back out the door and look under the house. We needed to see where the drain pipes led because there was a strange puddle growing right under the kitchen. Good news: it was dry under the house. Bad news: about five feral cats were living under the home, and judging by the weathered skull of one of their ancestors, they had been living there quite some time. And feral cats do not need litterboxes because they live in one.
The smell was apparent even from outside. I looked down at my new, soft blue CHRPA shirt and recently bought pants. I shrugged and crawled under that house, shoving aside piles of dried excrement. Rain dripped down the walls outside. Dustin pointed at the underside of the house. “See the problem?”
I am not a plumbing expert (yet), but even my untrained eyes recognized the fact that pipes should not have a huge, dripping gap between them.
I said that it was dry under the house. It was not dry after we ran the Snake. Fetid brown water poured out of the gap, and then we were crawling in mud made of desert sand, sink offal, and cat filth. We ran the Drain King from above and flooded the kitchen with backwash, providing me with the opportunity to scream “TURN IT OFF! TURN IT OFF!!!” on my very first day. We ran the Snake from below again, lying in the leftovers from the Drain King. Betty, the homeowner, took pity and offered us Pepsi. We ran the Drain King, the Snake, and the Drain King and finally the kitchen sink drained and did not overflow. Dustin bravely reconnected the pipe while I provided moral support from the driest position I could find.
“Please get sink catchers,” we pleaded with Betty, crying and covered in mud and unmentionable other substances in her flooded kitchen. “Please get them. They are cheap.”
“I’ll think about it,” she said, relatively nonchalant about the state of her kitchen for a 78-year-old woman with rheumatoid arthritis. I know this because she wouldn’t let me mop, boasting that she did all her own chores. She showed off a party favor from her twin great-grandsons’ birthday party, and pointed out how nice her new kitchen windows were until I agreed with her. She asked us to mail her donation to PCOA, the society that had connected her with CHRPA. Meeting her was the best part of that morning; she was cheerful and chatty and kept me sane and helped me remember why I was going through this. It wasn’t just a sink. It was water, the source of life, the gift of God to the desert.
We cleaned up the tools. We drank our Pepsi. And we got in the truck and went to our next job.
“My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:30
These sunny days in Tucson, I’ve been working at CHRPA (Community Home Repair Project of Arizona). It’s kind of similar to Habitat for Humanity, however, instead of building new homes, CHRPA staff and volunteers go into the homes of those who qualify as low-income, individuals with disabilities and those who are simply older and cannot get up on their roof in 100 °F weather (Heck! I have a hard enough time as a somewhat limber 23-year-old!) This is just a brief description. There is more at:http://www.chrpaz.org/
Today was in the 90s and 100s. IT IS HOT! When you step outside, you feel like you are entering a sauna. On a daily basis, we at CHRPA repair swamp coolers (an often cheaper alternative to Air Conditioning), rip out and reinstall toilets, roofs, bathroom sinks, kitchen sinks, water heaters, kitchen and bathroom floors, etc. The list is limitless!
Through my work at CHRPA, I have learned and been humbled to the max as I walk into people’s homes and they have holes in their ceilings and therefore, they cannot use that bedroom. I’ve been humbled as I have walked into countless homes and trailer homes and seen the home owners work alongside us to rebuild their homes…..(even as they are wearing a brace boot/cast to stabilize their broken/fractured/weak knee).
Many people have misconceptions about the people we assist. The reality: one of the women who sits in a wheelchair and who we helped one day said to me with tears streaming down her face, “I hate and don’t want to be a burden.”
I wanted to say something meaningful and full of wisdom like, “You are not a burden. I hope you see that this work gives me purpose and dive each day. We all must have time in our lives when we will take care of each other. I just hope there will be CHRPA staff and volunteers when I’m elderly.” Instead, I just said, “Oh! Don’t worry. You are not a burden!”
Honestly, I was a little baffled and without many words. I did not know exactly how to answer because I saw this same fear that I often have of “not wanting to be a burden.” I saw my reflection in her, in her tear-sodden eyes.
But please, let me take this “burden” which is no longer and make it an instrument of blessing. Once again, I was reminded again about how beloved I am. These words that this woman spoke echoed in my ears the whole afternoon.
Hanbyeol and I spoke at our job's Annual Meeting last night. Below is a very serious speech that we wrote together reflecting on the past 5 months of working at CHRPA.
H: On Sept. 3, 2014, Allie and I started our CHRPA story. We will not tell about EVERY day and every job, but here are a few things we have learned so far:
A: There was our first CHRPA school where we learned how to solder copper and every CHRPA school after with Dan R and other CHRPA worker’s careful planning and creative teaching. We learned that plumbing is Hanbyeol’s passion and there’s nothing more fun than the Wirsbo expander tool.
H: We have learned that biking to work is the most fun in the afternoon, when we aren't 20 minutes late for work. True community is when Allie bikes so much faster than me, but I still like her at the end of the day.
A: Community is also when Hanbyeol wakes me up at 6 am every morning for work because I can’t do it on my own.
H: I taught a CHRPA school lesson on Wirsbo, SharkBite fittings, and Rayhow pex to a group of people who are all older than me, something that is not usual in Korean culture.
A: And there’s nothing more satisfying than completing a 2 week gas job with Josh and Dustin, and the all you can eat popcorn at Ferguson's that comes with it.
H: The smell of cats will never leave me and there’s nothing better than a client with puppies.
A: Hugh is a walking story book and figuring out a challenge on Thursday afternoons is so satisfying
H: and it’s a good day when you are completely covered in flash and seal.
A: I have learned that the most important thing about working with clients is just to listen
H: I have learned to not bow, like in South Korean Culture, to clients but how to shake hands instead And how to nod and smile in conversations I don’t understand. No hablo español.
A: We both have learned to count how many times Dan W. says “shoot” in one working day (record was 12).
H: We have learned that CHRPA girls are the strongest, talented, smartest, beautiful women in the world.
A: We’ve never eaten as much ice cream as we have in the past 5 months.
H: Drinking Water is really important and the ability to laugh at mistakes, like falling through a roof is necessary.
A: This job could be hard and stressful, but because of the staff and volunteers who have let us learn, laugh, and grow with them this year, working at CHRPA has been a wonderful experience for both of us and we are excited to see what the next 6 months have in store……
H: dios te bendiga
Part of my job at CHRPA is to contribute to the annual "CHRPA Tales" story book. Below is one of my submissions. I worked with a Jesuit volunteer, Abi, who is a dear friend and one of the few northerners I agree to get along with ;)
On a Thursday afternoon, Abi and I were sent to a house to put up shower walls around a new bathtub. It was my first time working with Abi, and neither one of us had built a shower surround before. But this year is all about firsts, right?
I had been to this superannuated house before, to do the initial assessment with Dustin (a CHRPA employee). I was excited to revisit Reyna and her two chipper little girls. The house was clean, but old, and decorated with a hodgepodge of things. Despite the physical state of the home, I remember the sweet family created a happy and welcoming atmosphere
When we knocked on the front door, the mom – short and round and kind – opened it. Reyna had been expecting us. I don’t speak any Spanish, and she speaks very little English, but she showed us she was excited we were there without saying a word. Reyna led us to the bathroom and Abi and I got to work. As Abi and I ran in and out of the house, measuring the walls and cutting new pebble board, a neighbor pulled up a lawn chair in his next-door yard. He settled in and watched the chaos unfold. The kids ran around the house, chattering to each other in Spanish; something they could finally do after a CHRPA crew came the day before to repair their floor. Reyna ventured into the bathroom and checked on us every once in a while, during the commercial breaks in her favorite TV show.
After the job, Abi and I tried to communicate to Reyna that we were going to have to come back to replace faucet handles another day. We mimed at each other for a few minutes; no success. After laughing together over our ridiculous hand motions, she sent one of her daughters racing next door to fetch a kid who spoke English.
I was worried that she wouldn't be pleased with the shower after Abi and I struggled with our first installation of pebble board – but Reyna was grinning, happy to see the job done. She even helped us load tools back on the truck. I felt good about the work CHRPA did as a whole, because I knew, even without being able to effectively communicate with the family, that they were thankful.
NO, I AM NOT SCREAMING WHILE I WRITE THIS BLOG, NO MATTER HOW MUCH I DISLIKE WRITING. I WANTED TO SHARE WITH Y’ALL WHAT IT WAS LIKE TO WORK IN THE OFFICE AT CHRPA. I HAVE BEGUN SPLITTING MY TIME JUST ABOUT 30/50 WITH OFFICE AND FIELD WORK. EVERY FORM I FILL OUT ON COMPUTER IS TYPED IN ALL CAPS, UNIFORM AND ALMOST SCREAMING TO BE NOTICED AND READ.
WORKING IN THE OFFICE MEANS A CONSTANT PHONE RINGING IN THE BACKGROUND, PAPER WORK, AND VOLUNTEERS WAITING FOR MARCHING ORDERS AND INFORMATION. I, ONLY HAVING EXPERIENCE OF A YEAR OR SO IN CUSTOMER CARE AT A GOLF PRO SHOP, WASN’T QUITE READY FOR THE DIFFERENT TYPE OF CUSTOMERS I WOULD BE DEALING WITH. SONIA, OUR USUAL SECRETARY/GENIUS/THERAPIST WAS OUT FOR VACATION AND I WAS THE FILL IN.
IT WAS HOT A WEEK, SO THEREFORE THE MOST COMMON REQUEST WAS FOR COOLER REPAIRS. MOST PHONE CALLS ARE OVER WITHIN FIVE MINUTES. THEY CALL; I TAKE THEIR INFORMATION; AND ASK A BUNCH OF QUESTIONS ABOUT THEIR REPAIRS. THEY ASK ME HOW LONG THEY HAVE TO WAIT, AND I SAY I DON’T KNOW. THIS IS THE PART THAT STUMPS MOST CONVERSATIONS. HOW DO I TELL SOMEONE WITH 6 KIDS AND A CAVING IN FLOOR THAT WE CAN HELP BUT I JUST DON’T KNOW WHEN? AFTER I DROP THE “I DON’T KNOW BOMB,” THE CONVERSATION USUALLY GOES ONE OF TWO WAYS. ONE, THE CLIENT THANKS ME FOR LISTENING AND FILLING OUT AN APPLICATION, THEN THEY HANG UP. TWO, THE CLIENT MAKES A CASE AS TO WHY THEY SHOULD BE PUT AT THE TOP OF THE “LIST” FOR HOME REPAIRS. 6/10 TIMES THIS LEADS TO TEARS, GUILT TRIPPING, OR THE CLIENT BEGGING FOR MORE HELP.
I’D LIKE TO JUST GO AHEAD AND CURSE MY MOM FOR GIVING ME THE COMPASSION GENE, BECAUSE WHEN CASE 2 OCCURS, I END UP WAY TOO EMOTIONALLY INVOLVED. COMPASSION AND EMPATHY, I HAVE COME TO LEARN, IS MY WEAK POINT. I GET EMOTIONALLY INVOLVED IN STORIES AND PROBLEMS THAT AREN’T ALWAYS MY PLACE TO FIX. I AM LEARNING THAT I DON’T HAVE TO FIX, SOMETIMES I JUST NEED TO LISTEN. I AM LEARNING THE GRACE OF BEING POLITE BUT FIRM.
A LOT OF TIMES THE CLIENTS I SPEAK WITH ARE PEOPLE WHO ARE ON THEIR LAST STRAW. MANY TIMES THEY ARE STRESSED OR EMBARRASSED TO BE ASKING FOR HELP. SOMETIMES THAT COMES ACROSS AS ANGER, SOMETIMES TEARS, AND SOMETIMES JUST RAMBLING. I HAVE ALSO LEARNED THAT SOME CLIENTS JUST NEED SOMEONE TO LISTEN.
ONE DAY, I TOOK A LITTLE EXTRA TIME TO TALK TO MR. SMITH (NAME CHANGED, OF COURSE). HE TOLD ME HIS HOME REPAIR PROBLEMS; I LISTENED, AND LISTENED, AND HIS HOME REPAIR PROBLEMS TURNED INTO HIS LIFE PROBLEMS (THIS IS VERY COMMON). MR. SMITH JUST LOST HIS DAUGHTER. HE WAS IN AND OUT OF THE HOSPITAL, LIVING IN A FALLING APART HOME, AND WAS LONELY. I JUST LISTENED. BY THE END OF OUR 15-20 MINUTE CHAT, I KNEW MORE ABOUT HIM THAN I THINK I KNOW ABOUT MYSELF. AS WE WERE WRAPPING UP THE CONVERSATION, HE THANKED ME FOR BE WILLING TO HELP AND THEN HUNG UP. NOT EVEN FIVE MINUTES LATER, HE CALLED BACK AND TOLD ME THANK YOU FOR JUST LISTENING AND NOT BRUSHING HIM OFF. HE EXPLAINED THAT I WAS THE FIRST PERSON TO CARE ENOUGH TO TALK TO HIM FOR MORE THAN JUST A FEW MINUTES. THEY ALWAYS TEACH YOU A SMILE CAN CHANGE SOMEONE’S DAY, BUT I THINK A LISTENING EAR HAS AN EVEN BIGGER IMPACT.
WHEN I PICK UP THE PHONE, I NEVER KNOW WHAT VERSION OF A “TYPICAL INTAKE” I’LL GET, BUT THIS JOB HAS TAUGHT ME HOW IMPORTANT IT IS TO JUST HAVE PATIENCE AND TO LISTEN. SO MAYBE THE COMPASSION GENE, IS EXACTLY WHAT THEY REALLY NEED FROM ME...MAYBE I WAS GIVEN TOOLS TO DO A JOB I NEVER THOUGHT I COULD?
The past 3 weeks have been packed with exciting events and adventures!
I feel like I have truly learned something new every day while working at CHRPA. I have been outdoors and on roofs more than I ever imagined but I love working with my hands and being able to see the immediate result of our work.
This past week, I was able to see a job from start to finish which was gratifying. The project was for a veteran whose kitchen and hallway floors were in terrible shape and in no way safe to walk on. I went to inspect and assess the amount of work/supplies that would be needed for this job and discovered that the homeowner had been living without water in his home for 3 weeks. He was terrified to use running water because a water pipe was leaking right under the floor, making the floors weaker with every passing minute. A CHRPA team was sent to his home to start repairing the leaks and floor. Dustin (a fellow CHRPA worker) and I returned this past Monday and Tuesday to finish the work and lay down laminate flooring. Our very kind client donated tools, bought us lunch, and expressed his thanks many times over, to the point of tears. I am becoming so aware of how useful my hands are and the ways in which I can use them to help people feel safe in their own home.
One of the biggest learning experiences in my work so far has been going into people’s homes and seeing the conditions that people live in. I have lived such a comfortable life and it has been hard to not get emotional over seeing children’s bedroom walls on the verge of crumbling, or elderly people who are trapped in their home because they have no ramp. Each client I have met has a story that has deeply impacted me in some way.
To be honest, it has been hard to establish a routine - I find comfort in routine- in the past month but I know that this is part of transition. I love being able to talk to my family and friends from home, it means the world to me to still feel connected! I know I am right where I need to be because every morning I wake up excited for what the day holds. My housemates are so incredibly supportive and I could not survive this journey without them! Our spiritual and vocational director has encouraged us to journal and/or discuss each day which has become a huge help for processing.
During one of our house discussions, we watched a TED talk (https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story) and discussed what it meant to accept people for more than how we stereotype them. I am learning that when I think of a person as a one thing and ONLY one thing, that is what they become. The people whose homes I work on are more than just “poor.” I am also more aware of how much I need to work on feeling feelings that are more complex than just pity. This short clip has made me seriously reconsider the way I think about others.
I am thankful for the challenges that day-to-day life here holds and for the grace of new beginnings...
Glory be to you, O God,
for the gift of life
unfolding through those who have gone before me.
Glory be to you, O God,
for your life planted within my soul
and in every soul coming into the world.
Glory be to you, O God,
for the grace of new beginnings
placed before me in every moment and encounter of life.
Glory, glory, glory
for the grace of new beginnings in every moment of life.
John Philip Newell, Celtic Benediction; Morning and Night Prayer, 61-65