HABITAT FOR HUMANITY VOLUNTEERS REBUILDING HOMES, LIVES OF NEEDY.
The first time Ray Mathis saw the house it had peeling paint, a back yard piled with junk, a rotting roof and huge holes in the walls.
After hundreds of hours of work, Mathis and his crew of volunteers from Habitat for Humanity made the home safe for the wheelchair-using woman who lives there.
"It's not the same place," Mathis said Sunday as he surveyed the newly refurbished home. "We have repaired it and made it livable for them now."
The story has been repeated hundreds of times across Ventura County as Habitat for Humanity helps the poor or elderly make repairs they would not be able to afford otherwise.
"We're trying to help those who can't help themselves get some decent, affordable shelter they can take pride in and raise a family in," said Bob Merrill, who chairs the Habitat for Humanity rehabilitation construction program.
Habitat fixes leaky roofs of elderly people living in cramped aluminum trailers, helps Northridge Earthquake victims rebuild their destroyed homes from the ground up, and works side by side with impoverished residents to transform damaged homes into something they can be proud of.
Since the local chapter began in 1983, the organization has rehabilitated about 125 homes and constructed four from scratch, said Virgil Nelson, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Ventura County. The Ventura County chapter has about 800 volunteers, he said.
Rooted in Judeo-Christian principles, the organization uses the model of the old-time barn raising to create decent shelter and bring people closer together.
"Habitat is in the process of building community," said Nelson. "The tool that is used is the house."
In general, Habitat steps in when the poor have no other means to make their homes inhabitable and have an annual income of less than half the county median. For example, a family of four would have to have an annual income below $29,000, Nelson said.
Seeking to forge a sense of sweat equity, Habitat for Humanity asks the needy to pay for materials and work alongside the volunteers. In cases of extreme hardship, sometimes the organization works for nothing at all or agrees that the residents simply will keep volunteers fueled with coffee.
"It's a partnership, not a handout," Merrill said. "A lot of people we deal with are on welfare and used to putting their hand out, saying 'thank you' and that's the end of it."
In a tour of a couple of his recent projects in the Ojai Valley, Mathis visited a wheelchair-using woman whose home recently was overhauled by Habitat for Humanity.
When he first saw the house, he said, gaping holes had been ripped through the walls, the roof had rotted out and dangerous electrical wiring ran outside the walls.
Over several weeks about 20 volunteers re-shingled the roof, patched holes in the wall, repainted the inside and replaced the rickety back door. Mathis said they also removed tons of debris from the back yard and garage - enough to fill a 40-yard Dumpster.
"When she saw it, I thought she was going to cry," Mathis said. "Now I can't do no wrong by her."
Diana Katabalwa, a care-giver who attends to the disabled woman, agreed.
"The house was miserable," she said. "It's a really big difference. We really appreciate it."
A few miles away Mathis pulled his red pickup truck into a Casitas Springs mobile-home park and stopped by another project, a cramped trailer shared by an elderly woman and her granddaughter.
Mathis said Habitat for Humanity volunteers have fixed broken faucets, sealed gaping holes in the shower and installed a new hot water heater.
"They were trying to boil water on the hot plate to take a bath," he said. "It's sad it's that way."
A retired oil field worker who has volunteered with Habitat more than a decade, Mathis drives a weathered pickup truck cluttered with duct tape, tools and plumbing gear of his endless projects. Clad in jeans, a plaid shirt with a pocket stuffed full of pens and a Habitat for Humanity cap, he paused to reflect on the volunteering that has turned into a full-time job.
"I was raised back east in Arkansas," Mathis said. "We would do this all the time. When a house would burn down, we all would come over to help rebuild it. So I can say I've been doing this 60 years."