THE BLOG
04/28/2011 02:46 pm ET Updated Jun 28, 2011

Rebuilding America Through Volunteerism; National Rebuilding Day

Many great stories begin with humble beginnings.

30 years ago, a small church in Midland, Texas, recognized the dire housing needs of local community members whose homes had fallen into dangerous disrepair. The ministry adapted a volunteer model to address the destitution: recruiting local volunteers to provide critical home rehabilitations free of charge to low-income homeowners -- or, more appropriately -- their neighbors.

This modest program originating from a local Midland church group has evolved into the nation's leading nonprofit working to preserve affordable homeownership: Rebuilding Together. As a national nonprofit, it now has a presence in 1800 U.S. communities and 42 states, through the work of 200 Rebuilding Together affiliates. This story mirrors many of the great American tales; it is a story of modest people donating their time and resources to assist the neediest in their community, in order to build a more prosperous nation. A true story of success.

Consider the story of James Minor, a store keeper first class in the U.S Navy Reserves. Minor was serving as a senior "Seabee" in a fortified supply compound at the Iraq border when he was critically injured from a 30 foot fall during a blinding sand storm. As a result of this terrible tragedy, Minor suffered paralysis to his left side, traumatic brain injury, cortical blindness, and severe hearing loss. Following a long period of hospitalization and rehabilitation, James Minor returned to a home ill suited for his disabilities. When the Rebuilding Together affiliate learned of Mr. Minor's plight, we stepped forward to provide much needed support. An army of local volunteers were recruited, contractors were solicited, and from the collective goodwill of these local "gems of humanity" Mr. Minor's journey to a relatively normal life was finally completed through the modification of his home -- a home which is now fully handicapped accessible.

There is also Ms. Wendy Thomas, who I met in New Orleans last summer. A native of that wonderful city, Ms. Thomas was working full-time as a nurse's assistant while raising her three young children in Chicago. Ms. Thomas returned to New Orleans after the storm; she inherited a home from her grandfather, and discovered that it had been completely destroyed. Fearful of rampant contractor fraud that had infiltrated the city, Ms. Thomas learned many rebuilding practices herself in order to repair her home. However, her extraordinary spirit could not overcome her lack of resources, which left the home unfinished and unsafe. Rebuilding Together mobilized local and out-of-state volunteers, contractors, and product suppliers, to completely rebuild the Thomas family home. This valuable asset will remain in the family for future generations because of the work of the volunteer community.

Both of these hard-working Americans experienced the gift of an organization whose mission and humble beginnings have unleashed a national movement of volunteerism and reshaped the lives of countless families. The story of Rebuilding Together can be retold 10,000 times each year in the lives of the families that we assist. The soul of this story, the power of volunteerism and community stabilization manifests itself in its totality on a single day each year: National Rebuilding Day. This unique day on our nation's calendar, occurring on the last Saturday of April, brings out the best of who we are by helping those struggling to be the best versions of themselves, regardless of life's adversities.

One of my observations in recent years includes the stories behind the people who choose to volunteer. What I have learned is that many who choose to volunteer are themselves challenged by the harsh realities of daily life. From California to Florida, many of our volunteers are drawn from the pool of our nation's unemployed. They have chosen to volunteer in order to help those who have greater needs; they recognize that, as bad as life might be for them, it is often worse for others.

The act of neighbors helping neighbors also requires the support of our local business communities. The recent economic downturn should theoretically have resulted in a decline of charitable giving. However, we have experienced quite the opposite. Contractors and suppliers have given more, not less. They have provided their skilled employees as volunteers to install new roofs, build walls, and rewire the homes of families in need. They have also provided a valuable pool of unskilled volunteers, people who can wield a paint brush, remove construction debris or perform external yard work. Our corporations have stepped up, not stepped back -- they too embody the best of who we are.

2011's National Rebuilding Day occurs against a backdrop of deepening fiscal austerity. Earlier this month, President Obama signed into law a federal budget that includes cuts of $38 billion in funding for discretionary programs. Commentators on all sides agree that further cuts will be forthcoming in the 2012 federal budget. The gradual erosion of our social safety net will place an increasing burden on the non-profit community to provide assistance and care for the most vulnerable in our community.

However, our history assures us that regardless of the obstacles, our voluntary sector continues to step forward to assist those in most need -- modest people celebrating the story of success for homeowners and communities.

The story of that small church ministry, and its successful transformation into Rebuilding Together, will be celebrated the weekend of National Rebuilding Day. This day is truly an occasion for us to reflect and celebrate the very best of our nation's volunteer traditions. Success stories -- homeowners who regained their lives and generous volunteers -- build a stronger America for all our neighbors and ourselves. For more information on how you can serve in your community, please visit our web site at: www.rebuildingtogether.org