by Mike Galbreath
Dark. Pitch black. No power. No lights. Basement waters now four inches and rising… Days and days of winter rains and melting snows. Is this why I volunteered? Slipping face-down into the dark, oily water. Nothing to pull me up. Am I gonna drown in this basement pond? Time once again to pray to St. Joseph… Somehow I find a pole to grab and hear J.J. call over to me to hang on. After a few long moments I am finally able to grasp something, rise up and hand J.J. the switches and tools so he can restart the electrical system.
Mission accomplished. Power on. A grateful elderly lady.
For a few moments one day last winter, it seemed like purgatory in Chicago for IVC volunteer Ken Campagna as he assisted H.O.M.E. staff member J.J. Haley. That day, they successfully returned electrical power to a low-income widow’s Chicago home—as they have done for numerous elderly persons over the last four years.
Two full days each week, Ken serves as a repairman’s assistant with H.O.M.E., Housing Opportunities & Maintenance for the Elderly. The home-repair program, just one of the many programs of H.O.M.E., is a way to help low-income elderly persons remain in their own homes as long as possible by providing basic, necessary home repairs they otherwise could not afford. Most of the assistance Ken and J.J. and the other H.OM.E. repairmen provide includes plumbing repairs as well as needed work in electrical pumps and devices for hot water, air conditioning and heating.
Ken finds his volunteering with H.O.M.E. to be very fulfilling. “It can be a hard job but at the end of each day it is always rewarding. You help older people who are usually living alone acquire needed light and warmth especially with winter approaching. J.J. and I are helping these elderly people meet their basic needs.” In our conversations, Ken also shared a deeper reason for volunteering: showing God’s love to those he serves through H.O.M.E. “People cannot be open to learning about a loving God unless they have a feeling of security. When we arrive at jobs, I have often heard clients wonder aloud about how there can be a good and loving God when they are living alone in a dark, bad-smelling, musty and cold house. ‘If my family is gone and there’s no one to help me, how can there be a God who cares about me…?’ I don’t evangelize with our clients, although sometimes I answer their questions about my role in IVC and religious concerns. People seem to have more faith in God once they have electrical power and renewed light.”
Twenty years ago, the tragic heat disaster of July 1995 killed 750 Chicagoans—mainly elderly persons living alone who had no electrical power and thus no air conditioning or running water. During a 30-hour period, air temperatures averaged 106 degrees with a heat-humidity index mean of 128 degrees. A 1996 City of Chicago formal report on the disaster concluded that the incredibly high numbers of deaths among the elderly were due to a combination of non-working electrical devices and long-neglected home repairs. Further, these elderly men and women had no social or family network to offer assistance or provide well-being visits.
H.O.M.E. and community-based programs like Little Brothers of the Elderly and Caring Connections for Seniors (also IVC service partners) today provide much-needed assistance to hundreds of low-income and isolated elderly Chicagoans. Last year, H.O.M.E. completed 773 repairs in 256 Chicago housing units. The total repair cost is only a $25 service fee and materials costs, and all labor is at no cost. The H.O.M.E. program also provides trust-worthy, helpful services in the areas of window winterization, shopping buses for seniors with limited mobility to access groceries, pharmacies and medical services, senior H.O.M.E. residences, and much more.
The Ignatian Volunteer Corps has partnered with the H.O.M.E. home-repair program for the past 8 years, providing an extra set of hands to repairmen, mostly on Chicago’s south side. Previous IVC volunteers include Dave Kelly, Tony Mahowald and Chuck Malatesta. The partnership has been a unique and mutually rewarding one for both organizations, providing needed hands-on assistance, as well as the opportunity for IVC volunteers to find God’s spirit in their service experiences.
“In this work, you often have pleasant surprises,” Ken recalled. “One lady who needed home electrical repairs had just written a book on spirituality. Her main message—while living in poverty her whole life—was when you are given lemons you make lemonade. She gave me an autographed copy of her hardback book. I continue to learn to re-read parts of the book and her wisdom from it. The gratitude from people is humbling. We have many clients who’ve had their utilities turned off because of lack of utility bill payments. You cannot believe how appreciative most people are when we return their homes to livable temperatures and running water. One woman for whom we recently provided repairs had her utilities shut down for four years. How she survived in that closed-up home is amazing.”
Ken’s and his wife Norma (also an IVC member currently on hiatus) have one adult daughter. When their daughter was born, Ken began praying to St. Joseph as the patron saint of fathers. Today, many years later, Ken continues to pray to St. Joseph who is also the patron saint of workers. Following the example of St. Joseph, it is clear that Ken and J.J.’s work is not just a service to others, but a ministry. One can visualize 2,000 years ago a poor, elderly widow coming to St. Joseph and his apprentice Jesus and requesting repairs of a water-damaged doorway, an unstable table or broken chair. Ken and J.J. are the contemporary disciples of that Biblical team offering no cost, friendly assistance to help meet the basic life needs of neighbors who have no money and few options.
“A person’s home is a sacred place,” said Ken.” If a person’s sacred place fills the person with depression, it makes it very difficult for that person to accept a living and loving God. Hopefully with my efforts in IVC and with H.O.M.E., I can continue to see how God works through us and help others to find Him.” Ken is grateful to IVC and H.O.M.E. for the opportunity to serve. “Bringing light and warmth to so many elderly two days a week creates a very worthwhile IVC mission for me and for the many professionals who work in the H.O.M.E. community.”