For retiree Joe Botkin, some things are "much better than watching TV," especially if they involve elbow grease, construction tools and tears — the happy kind.
"Better" might be a wheelchair ramp, a new stairway, electrical repairs, yard work or other home improvement projects that make life easier for the Rebuilding Together Long Island clients the group helps each year.
Rebuilding Together is a national nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that helps low-income families, veterans, seniors, the disabled and those recovering from disasters repair their homes or make them more accessible.
It has a nationwide network of 166 affiliates that includes the Long Island chapter. Its executive director, Bob Ellis, joined the nonprofit after responding to a job posting on Craigslist six years ago and is the only paid employee.
The Long Island chapter was formed in 1992 by Botkin and fellow retiree Sol Goldstein, who met while working on Habitat for Humanity projects. With time on their hands in between Habitat projects, the friends pondered how best to use it. The answer came quickly.
"I wanted to give back," said Goldstein, who lives in Massapequa and, like Botkin, is 83. He was a former technical manager at ABC television and is president of Rebuilding Together. Botkin, who lives in Great Neck and is the group's senior vice president, felt likewise.
"I wanted to do something purposeful but completely different from the life I had led up to that time," said Botkin, former principal at PS 115 in Glen Oaks, Queens.
The two recognized a need for an organization specializing in repairs for low-income homeowners. Botkin and Goldstein became an affiliate of the national group and, with three other volunteers, did small jobs, such as changing light switches and fixing leaky sinks and windows.
In the past 22 years, about 356 volunteers have repaired more than 2,300 homes in Nassau and Suffolk counties. The group has worked on 107 projects this year, more than usual, as it has gotten more requests to repair homes damaged in 2012 from superstorm Sandy.
One of those projects helped Margarita Caicedo, 81, remain in her Amityville home after Sandy destroyed the basement, and she fell and hurt herself.
Volunteers built a new stairway between the first and second floors, moved her washing machine and dryer next to the kitchen and installed insulation under the living room floor, among other repairs.
"They helped me very much, physically and mentally," said Caicedo, who was referred to Rebuilding Together by Catholic Charities. "They saw the things I would need the most to repair. I am very grateful for the help I got, and they did it in one week."
Funding for the group's projects comes from banks, businesses, service organizations, churches, foundations and individuals. Some materials, such as lumber, nails, drill bits and saws, are donated or sold to the nonprofit at a discount. Since the end of 2013, the American Red Cross has pledged $538,000 and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul $415,000 for Sandy-related repairs.
Clients apply on their own and are also referred by social services agencies such as Catholic Charities, the Suffolk County Department for the Aging and veterans and seniors groups.
Rebuilding Together provides carpentry, painting, plumbing, weather stripping, wall repair and locksmithing services, but the most-frequent request for the Long Island chapter is wheelchair ramps.
Wheelchair ramps are lifelines
When Stanley Jawor fell and broke his hip in April and was discharged from rehab after a six-week stay, the former U.S. Army Air Corps sergeant needed a wheelchair ramp ASAP.
To keep doctors' appointments, leaving the home in Central Islip that Jawor, 96, shares with his daughter and son-in-law, Suzanne and John Lafferty, required that he be lifted up in his wheelchair, which was also very difficult to push, Suzanne Lafferty said.
The routine soon became taxing for the couple, who are in their 60s and couldn't afford a wheelchair ramp.
Acting on a referral, John Lafferty called the local Rebuilding Together office, located in Farmingdale. In May, a wooden ramp, 7 feet long and 3 feet wide, was installed.
"It was finished in a day," Lafferty, a former U.S. Army sergeant, recalled. "There were about 12 people there; they were all veterans, and they all came to help. It was unbelievable. . . . It made our lives a lot easier."
It took slightly longer — two days — for Rebuilding Together to construct a wheelchair ramp for Maria Silkie, 87, of East Meadow. She was a cancer survivor, a dialysis patient and had a pacemaker. Silkie died this past summer, said her son Joe, of Patchogue, but the ramp did not go unused.
"She used it for two months before she died, but she was very grateful for what they did," he said. "They were angels, a godsend."
From its beginning, the local chapter of Rebuilding Together has operated year-round, setting a trend for other affiliates. Until a year ago, when it opened the Farmingdale office, the nonprofit was based out of Goldstein's home, a library and a church to save on rent, which the national office now supports.
Ellis, 75, of Islip, is in charge of day-to-day operations. He joined Rebuilding Together in 2008 after holding the same position at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Bethpage, which runs thrift stores that benefit the needy.
He is responsible for deciding which applicants get assistance. To be eligible, they must own their home or live with a family member who owns the home, and meet financial and other eligibility requirements. Clients' average family income is $29,000. Many have lived in their homes for 30 to 50 years, and many are widows, Ellis said.
"We can do all the work we get money for," Ellis said. "It's a wonderful way to live a life. I intend to stay with it as long as I can."
When people apply for help, their information is taken and is emailed to a home visitor, who will later go to the home and assess the work needed. If Ellis approves the project, he sends it off to Botkin, who serves as project manager and assigns a team captain and crew selected from a roster of volunteers with skills for the work.
Volunteers Larry Rath and Charlie Ferrante, both of Massapequa, enjoy building the ramps.
"It's always rewarding when we finish a job and the client comes out of their home for the first time in months," said Rath, 56, a Verizon retiree and Rebuilding Together team captain. "You get to see them ride down their ramp into their front or backyard. So we work with smiles and hearts."
Botkin can vouch for that.
"When a client who got a ramp says, 'I haven't been out of my house in three years,' there are tears in their eyes, and they're very appreciative," he said. "It's worth all the money in the world. We like to help people, but we're helping ourselves."
They have also built ramps to help autistic children mount horses for therapy.
Goldstein makes presentations at health fairs and senior centers and seeks donations of money and materials. He praises the Rebuilding Together volunteers, most of whom are in their 60s, retired and are often recruited by word-of-mouth.
"With more than 250 volunteers, we can't use all of them all the time, so somebody will call saying, 'You haven't called me in a month, don't you need me anymore?' They're dependable and dedicated."
The same can be said of John Irwin, 64, president of Irwin Contracting in Hauppauge. He and Rebuilding Together formed a partnership after superstorm Sandy, donating labor and materials to repair East Rockaway High School, the Suffolk County United Veterans Home in Middle Island and 12 houses. Irwin was recently honored at Rebuilding Together's annual fundraiser.
"I do help them from time to time," Irwin said. "I'm hoping to do more down the line with them. It's a very good cause."
Next month, the local chapter is scheduled to join volunteers from the national Rebuilding Together office, Catholic Charities, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and others to paint the new, elevated shell of John and Cathy Fallon's Babylon home, which had to be demolished after Sandy struck. It is the last of 28 that Rebuilding Together Long Island rehabilitated with Red Cross funds.
It is because of Sandy that Laura Heffernan, 43, of East Islip, volunteers with Rebuilding Together.
"I like the fact that you go in one day and start with nothing, and at the end of the day you have a finished product," she said.
VOLUNTEER WITH REBUILDING TOGETHER LONG ISLAND
Rebuilding Together Long Island is looking for volunteers with a "willingness to work and be happy in a joyous atmosphere," said Sol Goldstein, president of the local chapter.
Anyone 18 and older, with or without special skills, can volunteer for projects or help organize, inventory and maintain materials and supplies. Volunteers also are needed to pick up donated construction materials, assist with public relations and marketing and offer web design and graphic design skills.
Donors can also sponsor a project. "We have projects ongoing; the need is funding," Goldstein said.
To learn more, contact Rebuilding Together Long Island at 631-777-7894, or fill out an application form at rebuildingtogetherlongisland.org.
OTHER VOLUNTEER OPPORTUNITIES
Lindenhurst residents Jen Mackie Aulino, Cristina Galante and Victoria Witchie-Boye founded the Lindenhurst-based nonprofit Adopt A House in the wake of superstorm Sandy in 2012. Since then, the group has spent $162,000 on new furniture, kitchen appliances, mini grants to pay off storm-related debts and provide other relief for affected families. It has also gutted houses, supplied 500 trees to replace landscaping and held workshops on house lifting, mold remediation and insurance claims.
"We're very active in the community," said Michele Insinga, the nonprofit's executive director and also a Lindenhurst resident. "We're looking for big donors. We definitely want to continue the mission. There are 700 families registered with us. We go from Sayville to Long Beach."
Contact: 631-867-2401; adoptahouse.org; or email Info@Adoptahouse.org.
The Centereach-based Community Development Corporation of Long Island offers repair services, but in most cases there is a cost for them. The nonprofit has a deferred lien program for clients of modest means, depending on family size and income guidelines, and it also provides a loan option with below-market interest rates.
Contact: 631-471-1215; cdcli.org
For more volunteer information and opportunities, contact the Long Island Volunteer Center at 516-564-5482; longislandvolunteercenter.org