Community Home Repair

Hard to believe, but we are less than three weeks from the end of our term. Even as we see weather reports of more snow in New England, it feels like mid-summer here. Today was 82* and we were working on a roof. :O( We know better than to complain about the heat. It’s supposed to moderate back into the 60s next week. That’s better working weather for us, but the locals call it COLD!! (They wear parkas and scarves when it’s in the 50s)

Last week we spent the entire week on one electrical upgrade for a 42 year-old woman with cerebral palsy. Virginia is confined to a wheelchair, but is trying to live on her own, and in her own home. She is unable to work and has a yearly income of less than $8K a year. Our first task was to upgrade her electric service panel. (where the power comes in at the meter) The existing panel was very likely the original – which would make it 60 years old. The box had only two screw-in fuses and only 12o volts. One of the things Virginia had hoped for was an electric cooktop, so that she could reach the controls and the pans from her wheelchair without reaching over the flame of her gas range. Because she didn’t have 240 volts required for a cooktop we had to first upgrade her system. Some of the wiring was so old that when we removed the old panel the insulation on the wires going into the house just crumbled, and when we tried to reenergize the lines, the new circuit breakers tripped. That meant half a day of repairing the old wiring, which was inside the concrete block walls.

Since the walls were concrete (and houses don’t have basements down here) Eli ran the wires for the new cooktop on the outside walls through metal conduit, then through the wall into the kitchen. First she fitted and attached the conduit, and then we had to pull all the wires through. Scott was able to find a used cooktop (donated) and another CHRPA worker came and installed the cooktop in a new countertop.

Since the electric service panels in Arizona are installed outside (and are usually 6 feet high) Virginia would not have been able to reach the circuit breakers, so we installed a “sub-panel” in her bedroom wall, low enough that she can reach the breakers from her wheelchair. That job was probably more complicated than the new outside panel since every circuit had to be rerouted through conduit and into another new panel mounted in an interior wall in the house. When the work was done and our mess cleaned up, Virginia allowed us to take a picture of her with her new cooktop. (She was practicing her stirring)


This week we started another upgrade for a young couple in South Tucson. They are trying to work on their home themselves and are doing a nice job, but the electrical system had been “monkeyed with” and was beyond his ability (or finances) to correct. We started that job yesterday and reached the inspection stage today. Assuming that our work passes we will return late tomorrow to begin connecting the existing wiring to the new service panel. Just so you understand what I’m talking about every time I mention a “service panel”, here’s a photo of one of our earlier jobs:

New Service

This afternoon we went to look at our next upgrade that we’ll begin tomorrow morning. The family currently has no gas to their home, and consequently no heat – and from what we saw, it’s doubtful that their furnace would have worked anyway. That seems insignificant after my mention of 80* temps, but earlier in the winter months the temperatures can get into the 20s and teens, and homes here, especially those of the people we work for, are poorly insulated, if at all. A leak was discovered in the gas line (imbedded in the concrete floor) and they didn’t have money to have it repaired, so the gas company shut off the gas and removed the meter. CHRPA will soon be replacing the gas lines AND the furnace. The family’s water bill was in arrears, and so the water was shut off too. A “good Samaritan” (sort of) neighbor, came by and turned the water main back on for them, but the water department discovered the “good deed”, and now the water has been shut off again and a lock placed on the main. That problem will have to be addressed by the family. So at the moment the family has no gas, no water, and a dangerously defective electrical system…AND a leaking roof. So Eli and I will repair the electrical problems, CHRPA will repair the gas line and replace the furnace, and CHRPA will contract with a roofer to replace the roof.

About three weeks ago we worked for Melvin, who lives in a very old mobile home, also without heat, and with only an extension cord run in his bedroom window for power, and to run an electric heater. Our “nightmare scenario” here is hearing the client tell us that a neighbor down the street “who knows a lot about electricity” came and tried to repair his electrical problems. That always sets our teeth on edge. Well it seems that Melvin’s “friend” came by to repair not only the electrical panel, but also the furnace. He tore into both, got in over his head on both, and then left – never to return. Melvin said his furnace hadn’t worked for over 5 years! And more than half of the plugs and lights in his home hadn’t worked for about the same period. Eli and I tackled the electric and found it beyond repair, and so we replaced the entire electric panel, and the feed into the home. When we were done and began turning on the new circuit breakers Melvin walked around the house and kept repeating: “I can’t believe it…I can’t believe it.” You mean THIS works now? My microwave will work? The lights work? Later the next week Tim, one of the staff workers, replaced the furnace with a new one. Then he replaced Melvin’s front door. The work request that we had received from the county “Council on Aging” said to “Repair or replace” the front door. Which option would YOU have taken?

Rundhaug Door
Melvin’s living room floor also had a few holes, so another CHRPA crew was there two weeks ago and repaired his floor.

CHRPA has been in existence for 22 years, and there seems to be no end to our job security.

And on the subject of CHRPA….here’s a link to their website. Take a look!

Thanks for your continued prayers and financial support.

Ted & Eli

With a little help from Toby and a steep learning curve for an aspiring geek, here are some photos of the CHRPA “campus” and a few shots of our jobs so that you can visualize where we are and what we might be doing. First, is our present “home”.


The CHRPA office is the green building behind the red van. They just moved in last summer. Before that the “office” was a large closet – now a laundry room – in the VS (voluntary service) house. Our RV, our home, while we are here, is behind the Cholla cactus in the foreground. Our truck that was stolen was parked right where the van is in this photo – and we were in our RV at the time! (The guy wasn’t timid. It was 2:30 on Sunday afternoon.) The shop is on the left, and that’s where we keep all the tools and supplies when they aren’t on one of the trucks. A Curved Billed Thrasher lives in the Cholla and sits on top of the plant and sings for us almost every day, if we are around.

Below is another perspective. Looking from East 30th Street, the Shalom Mennonite Church is on the left, the VS house is straight back, and our RV is obscured by the 5th wheel trailer on the right. You can see the shop beyond the hedgerow on the right.


Things have come together for us here now, our new truck runs well and provides us with more room and more tool storage than our stolen one did. It’s much more comfortable on our backs too.

Our New Truck

The word went out after our truck was stolen, and as of today CHRPA has two “new” (old) trucks to replace it. Last week TEP (Tucson Electric Power – the local electric company) came by with an enclosed utility body truck that they donated. Meanwhile the pastor at Shalom Menno Church who comes from Ohio contacted some friends in Kidron and the Kidron Electric Co. donated one of their vans to CHRPA too. The question of how the van would find its way to Tucson came up and a local Sunday school class decided to use some of their mission funds to finance the trip and a couple from the church drove the van down. It arrived two weeks ago, and is already part of the “fleet”.

Monday afternoon (Feb 4th) we went to the home of a Romanian fellow who is deaf. His girlfriend is also deaf. Our work order said: exposed wiring, ? cooler/Midwest box, enclosure for hot water heater. (the “Midwest box” is the electrical controller for the cooler. They didn’t have one) The client had been referred to CHRPA by the Family Services for the Deaf (TMM). With written notes and gesticulations we got through the application and income verification process and asked them to show us the problems that needed to be fixed. There were few receptacles in the house—none at all in the bedroom and bathroom—so there were cords dangling everywhere.  TMM had hired a sub-contractor to re-roof the house. Apparently the roofers had cut the wire to the swamp cooler on the roof.  Now the cooler had no electricity and the hot wire was left exposed near the ceiling. (still hot)

Outside we discovered more exposed wiring and dangling light fixtures. An addition that had at one time housed the water heater and the washing machine had been removed, and now a very old water heater was sitting about ten feet from the house with water pipes and gas piping hanging overhead. The washer was outside at one corner of the house and the dryer at the other corner. (It is not uncommon in Arizona to have the water heater outside the home.  Appliances are often outside or in a shed.)  In addition to this, in the bathroom the toilet bowl was broken and leaking and the shower valve had broken off in the wall.

We decided a new hot water heater should be installed at the back wall of the home with an enclosure. We would move the washer and dryer to the same corner. The client’s son arrived and helped to explain to Ion what we would be doing.  Ion became very agitated, signing that he did not want the hot water heater moved and insisting that he did not want a new hot water heater. His son said he did not know why his father was being difficult.  We tried to imagine what it might be like to be deaf, to have people you didn’t know arrive and start making decisions about your house and being unable to participate in the conversation. So we backed up and tried to carefully explain what was happening.  Normally some of this would have taken place on the phone before we arrived at the job-site, but because Ion is deaf the CHRPA office had not been able to call him.  Eventually we discovered that Ion thought the funding through TMM had been used up for the new roof and that he could not afford to pay us for moving the water and gas piping and installation of a new water heater. He thought that we were contractors, and that we would sue him if he could not pay. Through his son we explained that CHRPA is a non-profit agency, that we were volunteers, not sub-contractors. He still seemed to have trouble grasping that concept that anyone would help him for free, but finally he agreed reluctantly to our plan. Surely for him, things were out of (his) control. (CHRPA receives grant money from the state, the county and the city for the materials for home repairs for low-income clients.)  Ion’s annual income is around $10,000.

Tuesday morning Ted and I began working on the electrical part of the job and two other volunteers began digging trenches to re-route the gas piping.  Ion was much calmer. Much of the time he was outside watching us work, although still with an obvious degree of skepticism.

Wednesday morning we arrived and a smiling Ion held the door for us and welcomed us in. Again he watched as work progressed.

Thursday morning there were three of us on the job instead of four. Ion eagerly joined in the work, assisting with the installation of the new hot water heater and enclosure, and even climbing up on the roof to help with the piping. As the repairs took shape his whole demeanor had changed.  He was positively beaming.

On Monday Ted and I will complete the new circuits that we have run. There will be new receptacles in the kitchen, living room, bedroom and bathroom. The swamp cooler will be properly wired with a switch on the living room wall to operate the cooler from inside.  There will be new receptacles for the washer and dryer outside.  There is a new hot water heater in an enclosure and two new exterior light fixtures. The shower will be fixed and a new toilet installed.  All repairs that Ion could not afford.

Ion is smiling.

Much has happened since our last post. We learned this week that the Tucson police had arrested a person in the utility truck – but not without a chase – and a tree. That explained the flat tires, bent rims and damaged front end. It also explained why some of our tools were recovered. We have been given a new truck that is much newer, bigger and more comfortable for my back than our first one. CHRPA is talking with Southwest Gas about getting another hand-me-down truck donated, but in the meantime they are minus one truck in the midst of their busiest season, i.e. with the most volunteers needing trucks.

We have spent a lot of time – and money :O( – replacing many of my stolen tools and have our truck relatively well equipped again. From time to time I remember yet another tool that I have lost. I had brought a carpenter’s tool belt along, just in case we had a carpentry job in between all our electrical jobs. In the apron was a very old brass plumb bob (some may not know what that is) that belonged to my father. Clearly that was a tool that could never be replaced. When we sorted through all the tools that were recovered I found my carpenter’s apron, and in the pouch was the plumb bob! :O)

In 1987 I was working my first major MDS project in Maine and it seemed like just about everything that could go wrong did. I was getting very discouraged. A veteran MDS leader came up from Pennsylvania to help me and said something that I never forgot. He said “Whenever we are involved in any project and the adversary isn’t out there furiously trying to subvert our efforts, we have to wonder whether Jesus is in it or not.” It’s difficult to find that reassuring when we are in the midst of trials, but nevertheless the past weeks have affirmed for us that this is indeed God’s service.

In our first post I said that the theft of our truck and the loss of my tools felt like the adversary had won a skirmish. Now, a family is taking hot showers for the first time since they’ve lived in their home. Their roof doesn’t leak, their plumbing works, the lights work, they are warm and they have a refrigerator and a kitchen range. All things that most of us take for granted. The mother was so excited about her new range that she wanted to roast their first Thanksgiving turkey. She wanted Eli to explain to her how to do it. All that feels like a huge victory to us. :O)

We have been here just over two weeks now, and I could begin this entry almost as a carbon copy of the previous one. Elinor and I have spent much of our weekend cleaning out our “new” truck and stocking it with tools and supplies. This is actually the third truck for us (sigh), but that’s another story. (we had been using the director’s truck and he was riding his bicycle to work) Today is an extra day off for us, MLK day, and unlike the last Monday I wrote about, this time our truck was still here – the last time I looked. Other than our Sundays, we really haven’t had a day off yet, and the shock and discouragement of the stolen truck still lingers.

This past week has brought good news and bad news. On Wednesday we got news from The Tucson police that our utility truck had been recovered. The bad news was that when Scott (the director of CHRPA) went to reclaim the truck he found it to be beyond repair. All four tires were flat, and even the rims were bent. It appeared that the truck had run into a tree or a pole as well. The good news was, miraculously, most of the supplies and wire was still on the truck, as were many of the tools! We wonder if it wasn’t a joy ride for some young kids, rather than the targeted theft that we first thought. (there were also whiskey bottles found in the truck.) The bad news was, that the thieves seemed to be attracted to my tools. Some of the new tools that belonged to CHRPA were still on the truck, while almost all of my power tools and four tool boxes were gone. Of course CHRPA is out one truck now, too.

We spent much of the week working at the home we wrote about in our first entry. First, the roof leaks were repaired, and Eli replaced many of the ceiling lights that had been filled with rain water. Elinor and I replaced the old, fused electric panel (the melted one) :O( with a new one with a larger capacity and circuit breakers. While I removed the old propane water heater and installed an electric water heater, Elinor chased a bunch of faulty circuits and switches in the house and repaired them. While we were making the electrical repairs, other volunteers were repairing the plumbing, the toilets, sinks and installing a tub surround for the shower. While all that was going on, Scott was advocating for the family with Family Services for Pima County and found that the family was qualified for a new refrigerator and kitchen range. On Wednesday we picked up the appliances and delivered them to the family. We wired a new electric circuit for the range and completed our wiring jobs.

Our Taftsville faith community has been very supportive of our service work both financially and in prayer. We hope that we can keep everyone informed about our work with Community Home Repair Projects of Arizona here in Tucson. That’s quite a mouthful to say, so we all just say “Chirpa” here. Unfortunately as many of you know, our experience here thus far has been disheartening.

Dec. 27, ‘07- Jan. 3, ’08: We made the long trip . . . Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas, Texas, Texas, New Mexico and finally Arizona. Totaling just over 3,000 miles from New Hampshire. Temperatures remained cool. Low’s in Texas and New Mexico at night were 16 degrees and 18 degrees! We laid over for a day in Texas and a day in New Mexico to try to rest up a bit. The trip was uneventful – which was nice – no problems with the RV on the way.

Jan. 4-5, ’08, Friday & Saturday: We settled in at our site in the church parking lot. The Shalom Mennonite Church is at the front of the lot. The Voluntary Service (VS) House is at the back of the lot and the Community Home Repair office is also near the back of the lot. Our RV site is somewhere in the middle of it all. Ted spent two days transferring his tools that we had brought along, into the truck that we would be using. He also cleaned the truck up, looked through the inventory and filled the truck with some additional CHRPA tools, parts, wire and cable. Then he filled it with gas, put new wiper blades on, etc.

Jan 7, ’08, Mon.: Our first day on the job with Community Home Repair Projects of Arizona (CHRPA). We gathered at the CHRPA office to receive our work orders, then each crew heads out to load up their vehicle with tools and parts for the job they have been assigned. There were around 15 of us including staff, long-term VSers (young people usually in their twenties that volunteer for one or two years) and SOOPers ( short term winter volunteers like us).

When Ted and I went out to get into our truck, it was not there. Ted has been known to play some practical jokes on other volunteers and staff in the past so we immediately assumed that this was pay-back and someone was playing a joke on us. We looked everywhere for the truck, then made the rounds of people trying to find out who was responsible. Everyone denied having any involvement and everyone seemed a little too serious. No joking here. Finally we realized that the truck really was gone . . .and our tools with it. The awful truth began to soak in. The other crews left for their job assignments. We were left standing. The police were called and a report was made. Everyone felt sick and I am sure Ted and I looked sick.

Here is Ted’s description of the events and how we felt:

Some of you who work in the trades understand the real impact of having the tools of your trade stolen. They’re like old friends and buying new ones is never quite the same. Elinor’s brother calls me a
“tool junkie” and Monday I felt so helpless without so much as a screwdriver. Randy told me that George referred to them as “tools of Grace”. That nearly brought tears to my eyes – I’m always going to
think of them that way – including our new ones. Without using those words, I think that’s what Elinor and I have always intended.

Monday night (Jan. 7) I couldn’t sleep, and lay awake counting tools instead of counting sheep. Every other thing, I remember yet another tool that I had in that truck. Everyone here feels terrible about it, knowing that we had brought a huge load of our own tools down so that we weren’t taking tools from the other volunteers. I feel like I’ve had my legs cut off. We finally went out on our first job today (Tuesday) and every time I needed a tool I started for the truck and remembered: “Oh, I don’t have that anymore.” :O(

We learned something new about the theft this morning (Wed., Jan 9). One of the other older volunteers asked me this morning where I went with the truck Sunday afternoon after church. I said I hadn’t used the truck Sunday afternoon. He looked down at the floor and shook his head and said “I watched the guy drive your truck out of the yard. I thought it was you. I’ve been awake all night thinking about it.” So they took it in broad daylight at 2:30 Sunday afternoon right out of the church parking lot while we were right there. Elinor and I were in our RV, not 20 feet from the truck. It’s so frustrating because we hadn’t even been out on a job yet. I had spent two full days servicing and cleaning the truck and loading all our tools, CHRPA’s tools, and something like $800 worth of Romex and cable on the truck. CHRPA had just received a grant to buy tools and had put a bunch of brand new power tools in. They were still in the wrappers – hammer drill, circular saw, sawzall…..on and on. So clearly someone was watching me load the truck and targeted it, because ours was the oldest and dumpiest of the fleet. But the others weren’t loaded with tools and wire. CHRPA has been working here in Tucson for over 20 years, but being a non-profit, doesn’t have a big bank account. They rely on donated trucks from Southwest Gas and Tucson Electric Power. The truck we used was an ’88, and not in great shape, but now we are using the boss’s truck and he’s been riding a bicycle to work.

Our first job has put things into perspective for us. The young couple (20s) with a daughter in kindergarten have no heat and no hot water. They can’t afford the deposit and other expenses of having a propane tank put in. They don’t have a kitchen range, and heat water on a hot plate for bathing and washing dishes. The water line to one toilet is broken, so they flush with a pail of water. In the other bathroom the toilet isn’t attached to the floor, the float valve was broken, and they had a string coming out through the hole in the tank where the handle used to be – tied to the flapper – to flush. The mobile home is an old one (1970) with all aluminum wire, and they had used an electric space heater to heat the bedroom and it overloaded the circuit, but rather than blow the fuse it heated the panel until the screws were red hot and the insulation on the Romex melted. (no, there wasn’t a penny behind the fuse) Their roof leaked so badly in the past that the ceilings are sagging and they had to take the glass globes off of the ceiling lights because they were filling with water when it rained. They repaired it as well as they could although it still leaks at one or two places. AND ALL WE LOST WAS A FEW TOOLS.

We are putting in a new service for them and ran the conduit and feeds today (Wed., Jan. 9) . Tomorrow Elinor and I will replace the service panel and will also install a small electric hot water heater. One of the younger volunteers is repairing the toilet and putting in a new bathroom sink
(theirs was broken) and repaired the roof today.

We can all use your prayers. It sometimes feels like we came to serve the community and the community stole our tools. Frankly it’s sometimes hard to make the distinction between those we are here to help and those who stole from us. But our present job makes our calling clear. :O)

Our clients have been eager to help out in any way they can. Robert dug the trench for the conduit and built a platform for the water heater. He wondered out loud how much all this work would have cost. I laughed , shook my head and said, “Too much!” His wife reminded him that they had called an electrician and were told that it would cost $170 per hour plus travel. Impossible with an annual income below $8,000. Robert shook his head and said simply, “You are heroes.”

We’ve bought some new tools so that we could begin some work, and so far just replacing hand tools and some wire we’ve spent over $1600. The director of the CHRPA program feels that they should absorb the cost of our tools, but they don’t have a lot of money either. We estimated that CHRPA lost about $1300 worth of tools and $800 worth of wire and perhaps another $800 worth of parts. Initially we estimated our own tools at $4,000 but now that we have been looking at prices in the stores we realize that is probably on the low side.

Before we went to work on Thursday morning Scott told us that Sonya (CHRPA Administrative Assistant) took a phone call. On the other end was the voice of a little girl. Her first question was, “Do you help families?” Sonya replied, “Yes, what do you need?” The girl answered, “It’s cold at our house.” (It had been 35 degrees the night before.) Sonya asked if her mother or father was there and she heard the girl knock on a door and call her mother saying, “Mommy, I called one of those numbers and the lady wants to talk to you.” The mother is a widow with three children. Another SOOPer and a VSer were sent to repair their furnace on Thursday.