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Volunteer-led home repair organization forms local group

07/10/2016 12:00 PM |

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The 12 men and women who comprise the North Fork team of Rebuilding Together Long Island, a volunteer-led organization that provides free home repairs to neighbors in need, are ready to get their hands dirty for a good cause. All the newly formed group needs is its first project. 

“It’s the best-kept secret on Long Island,” said Catherine Harper of Mattituck, who helped spearhead the local team’s creation in February with her husband, Robert. “It really isn’t as well-known as it should be, like Habitat for Humanity.”

Rebuilding Together Long Island is a chapter of the national nonprofit Rebuilding Together, which uses donated materials and volunteer labor to provide no-cost repairs to qualifying homeowners, particularly veterans and the elderly. Until five months ago, the Long Island chapter’s reach only extended as far east as Mastic Beach.

“Both of us thought, ‘We need to do something to extend that kind of work from the William Floyd Parkway out to the eastern end of Long Island,’” said Mr. Harper, who is also a member of Southold Town’s Historic Preservation Commission. “I’ve seen many homes out here and I’ve always found people who are almost as old as their homes and can’t keep them up.”

The Harpers, who once belonged to a volunteer-based home repair group in East Patchogue called the Bellport Housing Alliance, had hoped a similar organization existed on the North Fork.

“And I looked and I looked and I looked and there wasn’t,” Mr. Harper said.

Through research, the couple eventually found Rebuilding Together Long Island. After lobbying the organization for around a year, the North Fork team, which was recruited largely through word of mouth, officially received the green light this past winter.

“The North Fork has as much need for this type of group as any other area in Nassau and Suffolk,” said Barbara Nilsen, president and CEO of Rebuilding Together Long Island. She added that the organization’s Long Island chapter, now in its 24th year, repairs around 100 homes a year. Most fixes cost no more than $2,500, with wheelchair-accessible ramps being the most requested addition.

“It is great that [the Harpers] have stepped up to help their communities and neighbors,” Ms. Nilsen continued.

The Harpers, retired teachers who live in a house near Marratooka Lake that was built in 1873, are particularly sensitive to the challenges of maintaining a historic property. They are also keenly attuned to the fact that life is filled with surprises — and they aren’t all good.

“Anybody’s life can go off the rails at any moment, especially the veterans and the seniors,” Ms. Harper said. “Those are the people that we especially have a soft heart for.”

To qualify for repairs through Rebuilding Together Long Island, Ms. Nilsen said, applicants must own their homes. They must also have an annual household income of no more than $40,000 for one person and $5,000 for each additional person.

“All you have to do is qualify and we’re there,” said Ms. Harper, who acts as the team’s client liaison and makes home visits to help determine whether someone meets the requirements. “We’re there with our hammers and our saws.”

While the Harpers wait for a local project, they’re busy raising their group’s profile in the area.

“We’re hoping that once we can get a little name recognition that people, out of interest and out of understanding of what we can do for the community, will be able to build us up,” Ms. Harper said.

“If there’s anything that characterizes the North Fork, it’s that it’s a neighborly place,” she added. “It’s people who care.”

To learn more about how to qualify for free home repairs from Rebuilding Together Long Island, or to volunteer, call the organization’s Farmingdale headquarters at 631-777-7894.

Photo Caption: Rebuilding Together Long Island’s newly formed North Fork team. Back row, from left: Mickey Clancy, Ted Schulz, Steve Geraci, Damon Rallis; middle row: Catherine and Robert Harper, Tom Jenkins; front row: Steve Rothaug and Loretta Hatzel-Geraci. Not pictured: Mary Eisenstein, Ted Webb and Jean Schweibish. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

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