Christmas in April began three years ago in Boston with the goal of helpinglow-income, elderly and disabled homeowners achieve safety and independencethrough home renovation and rehabilitation. This year, on April 29th, severalhundred volunteers from all over Greater Boston worked at over a dozen inner-citysites, making major improvements to a total of 15 homes, a soup kitchenat the Boston Food Bank, and built a playground where a vacant lot oncestood.

“As a strategy, the neighborhood approach can make a big differenceto a large number of people,” said Stephen Sousa, president of Christmasin April, Boston. “A dirty lot that becomes a beautiful new playgroundis but one example of our new vision with our community and corporate partners.”

Neighbors came together and supported one another while community andcorporate sponsors provided much of the funding. Volunteers came from bankssuch as Bank of Boston, BayBank and USTrust, The Massachusetts MortgageBankers Association, The Junior League, Home Depot in Somerville, as wellas from the Boston College Alumni Association in Chestnut Hill. In the spiritof community outreach, The Mortgage Almanac covered some of the events ofthe day, starting at 23 Robin Hood Street in Dorchester and ending at theFields Corner playground. We spoke to community leaders, volunteers andhomeowners, all of whom gladly shared their experiences.

The church bells at St. Paul’s across the street were ringing in theearly morning hour as we pulled up to the first home site at 23 Robin HoodStreet in Dorchester. Christopher Downey of Harbor Mortgage Solutions greetedus as he unloaded two-by-fours for a new porch. Chris took us around thesite where more than forty volunteers from the Bank of Boston, as well asneighborhood residents, had been clearing rubble from the yard and strippingpaint since 8 am. We first spoke to Kim and Jim Dow, a husband and wifeteam who volunteered as house captains for the day. The Dows own Dover Craft,a family-owned construction company based in Wellesley. Jim’s father helpedto build the green wall at Fenway Park many years ago, raising seven childrenalong the way.

Kim explained the process, “Each site is overseen by an experiencedhouse captain who assembles a team of skilled tradesman such as electricians,plumbers, carpenters, roofers, landscapers and painters who donate theirtime to plan and execute the renovations. This year, donations of over $50,000were provided by building supply companies and free labor was donated bylocal trade unions. The Electrical Workers 103 came through after I madeone call.”

Jim said, “This house had special requirements. The windows whichhad to be replaced, for example, were all custom made, each an odd size.We had experience dealing with older homes because of our involvement withNARI, a contractor’s trade association.”

Homeowner Mary P. Liddell, (Honey), is an 84 year old resident of thishistoric Dorchester community. “I used to sled down this hill beforethere were cars. I have lived in this house since my son was born. My husbandand I bought it from a Catholic priest, Father Brennan, who raised six childrenhere. Now, I am all alone; all I have is a kitten. After so many years ofstruggle, it’s so wonderful to get some help.”

Mrs. Liddell continued, “Father Francis from the Dudley Street Initiativeentered my application to Christmas in April. This will make a big differencein our neighborhood; now they’ll all be knocking on the door asking me tosell the house. I feel safe here, I walk everywhere…no one bothers me.”

Catherine Flannery has been a neighbor of Honey’s for 35 years, “I’veknown Honey forever. She’s a dear friend. I have watched her raise her sonin this house; she’s a beautiful person…” Miss Flannery points toa faded black and white photo of Honey as an attractive young woman.

Kim Dow explained how she and her husband became involved in the program,”The board needed a skilled crafts person to assess site needs forthis location. My husband Bob is a contractor, and we have a constructionbusiness in Wellesley. We made a request list for all of the companies whodonated supplies. We asked for the moon, but we took what we could. We’vehad Ryder trucks delivering two-by-fours and gallons of paint and brushesthroughout the day.”

Kim continues, “We worked directly with Dick White, the projectsupervisor from the Bank of Boston. Their entire office volunteered to comehere and work for the day. At 8 am, the crew arrived at the site and clearedthe yard of refuse which had accumulated over the years. The exterior ofthe house has been stripped of paint and a fresh coat applied. Kitchensand baths have been stripped and cleaned. An electrical contactor from thelocal union installed new light fixtures. The changes are already evident.”

One of the volunteers, a 9 year old girl named Sharni Franks attendsthe fourth grade at the Henry Grew School in Mattapan; she wanted to helpout and diligently painted a pillar. It was apparent that the work doneat 23 Robin Hood Street would have a lasting impact on Honey Liddell.

The next house on our tour was at 29 Charles Street, just a couple ofblocks away. The entire street was taken up in a buzz of activity as morethan one hundred volunteers from BayBank, Home Depot, the City of Boston’sPublic Facilities Department and the Junior League worked to complete workon the homes they sponsored by day’s end. On Charles Street, the partnershipfor neighborhood action between Christmas in April and the Fields CornerCommunity Development Corporation has developed a three-year revitalizationplan for the area. Jane Matheson, executive director of the Fields CornerCDC said, “Christmas in April asked us, ‘What can we do in your communitywhere the impact will be felt the most?’; that’s a question we respond verypositively to, but are not asked very often.”

On Charles Street, two homes were sponsored by BayBank, because as residentialmortgage manager Kevin Hughes explained, “We had too many volunteersfor one home, so we decided to work on two.” Homeowner Donna Damonchimed in, “It’s like Christmas, New Year’s Eve and the Fourth of Julyall at once!” Damon spoke about the selection of her home for the programas if it were a miracle, “Helen from Fields Corner CDC came to thedoor. I have five children, all boys, and it’s tough for my husband andI to make ends meet. Before I knew it, here they were. I know this kindof work would have cost over $10,000, and we just don’t have that kind ofmoney. We’ve been here eighteen years and I was just about to give up. Whata great thing for our neighborhood!”

BayBank workers swarmed around Damon’s house, replacing the roof andpainting the exterior a bright green with yellow trim. Shutters were re-hung,and ladders supported painters as they gave a final fresh coat to the eves.Wanda Davis, a BayBank employee in the community banking department said,”Even Grady Hedgespeth, our regional president is here getting hishands full of paint with the rest of us. We have six branches in this areathroughout Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan, so we are committed to supportingthis community.”

Around the front of the house, Hugh Johnston, a B.C. graduate and areamanager of BayBank’s Boston neighborhood branches and Jennifer Hanney, avice president in the Burlington office, compared notes on their progress.Johnelle Monroe, a commercial real estate administrator, was on her kneesto dig a hole so that Ken Willis of mortgage sales and Janine Gardner, anunderwriter, could help plant colorful pansies and begonias in the frontgardens. “We’re having more fun today than we do at the office,”the group said.

Gail Downey, house captain, said that “We had to keep sending workersfor more gallons of paint, because we were running out every hour.”Her husband George Downey said, “This year, we expect that more than90 gallons of paint will be applied to inside walls at the Greater BostonFood Bank location alone. That’s a lot of paint and brushes!”

Several large dumpsters were slowly filled to capacity as 15 year-oldLutton Auguste, a resident of Josephine Street and a freshman at East BostonHigh School greeted us as he swept the street in front of the houses. Luttongot involved in Christmas in April through the PAL program. “I’m gladto help out today, because this is MY neighborhood!”

Alicia Mahoney, house captain at the second BayBank home at 29 CharlesStreet was oversaw planting and landscaping activities in the garden. “Wedidn’t plan on adding gardening to the task list today, but we were at HomeDepot this morning picking up supplies, and decided to add several flatsof flowers to our list,” she said.

Graclyn Smith, the homeowner at 29 Charles Street, a three story, brightly-paintedyellow house on a corner lot, greeted us with a bit of background. “Ihave owned this house for over twenty years, my mother lives with us aswell as my son, his wife and my two granddaughters. Mayor Menino came bythis morning for a visit and we were so excited! That magnolia tree usedto be small; that’s how long we’ve been here.”

Alicia Mahoney explains that “Graclyn had a security problem here,and brought her problem to the attention of Jane Mattheson and Helen Hornerat the Fields Corner Community Development Corporation. Essentially, thefront door was never cut correctly, creating drafts. Holes in the structurewere taped and the wood was rotted. Our carpenters came in and replacedrotted wood, reinforcing the door frame. The result? Better security forthe family.”

“We also ordered motion-sensitive lights to prevent kids from hangingout in the yard and the back door vestibule at night. In addition, all thegutters and downspouts had fallen apart and were replaced.”

Ms. Mahoney works full time for the 4-H Foundation, and helped get Christmasin April started in Boston three years ago. She said, “I was lookingfor a volunteer position; a way to reach out and help. This was it.”

We moved up the block to 41 Charles Street, a former crack house thatwas sponsored by the City of Boston’s Public Facility Department. All ofthe 14 volunteers on site were employees of Home Depot’s Somerville location.The house was completely gutted, and workers were shoveling refuse includingneedles and broken bottles out windows into large dumpsters. Bernie Brownfrom Home Depot explained, “The city donated $5,000 to prepare theproperty for a gut re-hab, as they own the property. Vacant Properties suchas this one will erode the tax base unless they are dealt with. Today, weare making a difference.”

Across the way, we ran into the girls from the Junior League. Co-chairSusan Midgley laughed as she explained their participation, “All ofthe guys were bumming when they found out they would have to work with us.But after the first five minutes, it wasn’t so bad. We learned how to runthe saw after we stripped the lattice work from the front porch and replacedall of the woodwork. Both front and back porches were replaced, the backfence was re-built, hallways were sheetrocked, and kitchen cabinets wereinstalled and painted.”

Kristen Potts, event co-chair commented, “There was a question ofwhether the porch would come down as we were tearing off the lattice work.We all made it through the day, and we were happy to help out!”

Our final stop of the day was the most touching. An empty lot just offGeneva Avenue in the Field’s Corner section of Dorchester is not a placethat would usually draw a big crowd. USTrust brought in over 40 volunteersfrom their downtown Boston office to staff the playground renovation. Colorfulnew climbing equipment complete with a slide brightened up the scene.

Chris Jones, a landscape architect from Carrol R. Johnson Associatesin Cambridge was asked to work as site captain. A grassed lot was clearedof rubble and railroad ties were installed to create a gravel path. Chrisled a crew who planted shrubs and flowers, clearing rocks and even removinga dead rat and a couple of dead cats, which were discovered by ChristineArmstrong of the USTrust crew.

Senior lending officer Kathy Stevens brought along her young son, Benjamin,(11), a fourth-grade student at the Park School in Brookline. Benjamin sharedin the experience, playing on new playground equipment installed by Kompan.When asked what he wanted to do when he grew up, the response was: “Idon’t have to decide that now.”

Two six-year old girls, Stephanie Ann Ortiz and Florie Rosario from theneighborhood stopped to explain that they were kindergarden classmates atthe Marshall School. “I live in that building up there,” saidStephanie, pointing to the third floor of a brick apartment building adjacentto the playground site. “My sister is twelve and my mother takes careof us,” she said. Stephanie took a few steps closer and sat on my lap.I said, “My name is Stephanie Ann, too,” as she reached over togive me a hug. Stephanie leaned over and said in a barely-audible whisper,”Somebody killed my daddy…”, her bright eyes looking intentlyinto mine, then lowering.

Suddenly, the meaning behind the entire day we had witnessed came intosharp perspective. The late-afternoon tempreture had dropped to a chillas storm clouds rolled in. We said our goodbyes and walked away towardsthe exit gate on the newly built path. As we made our way to the car, wecould hear little Stephanie repeating, as she waved us off, “Goodbye,Stephanie Ann, Goodbye, Stephanie Ann.” I’ll never forget that moment,nor the dramatic impact made on an ordinary community by ordinary peoplewho came forward to lend a helping hand.

For more information on Christmas in April, call (617) 241-7678 or (617)631-7504.

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