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Brushing Up on the Holiday Spirit in April : Housing: Christmas in April program is set to rehabilitate 32 area homes. The annual volunteer project helps low-income residents nationwide.


SAN GABRIEL VALLEY — John Carrillo last repaired his house in 1964 and since then has watched time wear at it year by year, wearing large holes in the floor, cracks in the ceiling and chipped paint outside.

Today, Carrillo's pale-green, three-bedroom home looks the most dilapidated among the post-World War II tract homes on Vancouver Avenue in Monterey Park. Last year, federal housing money paid to repair the holes but not the chips and cracks--some of them caused by the 1987 Whittier Narrows earthquake.

"I can't afford to fix this. We're just making ends meet, that's all. We're living day by day," said Carrillo, 72, a retired sheet-metal worker who now lives mostly on Social Security checks. "I sent my four children to private Catholic school and three to college. . . . I'm proud of that. But I borrowed money here and borrowed money there, and that's why I got so far behind."

Further squeezing Carrillo's budget are the needs of his 27-year-old son James, whose condition was diagnosed as schizophrenia a decade ago and is dependent upon him. To help make ends meet, his wife Margaret, 63, works part time as a teacher's aide at a junior high school, and Carrillo is looking to sell his 1977 Dodge. He is asking for $500 but will take what he can get, he said.

But sometimes life has a way of taking a new turn, and chance has picked Carrillo. On Saturday, his broken-down home will get spackle, paint inside and out, and other minor repairs as one of 10 in the city due for face lifts by an army of 300 volunteers for Christmas in April--Monterey Park.

The annual one-day effort that began in Texas 20 years ago has now spread to 35 states with 100,000 volunteers who will rehabilitate 3,000 homes of elderly and low-income people on Saturday, 32 of them in the San Gabriel Valley. It's all free of charge.

The money for building materials is donated by corporations and civic groups, which will also supply 800,000 work hours. Christmas in April--USA, the parent organization headquartered in Washington, estimates a market value of $18 million in materials and repair work to be done nationwide on Saturday.

"It may have started as a cute little program, but now it has a substantial impact," said Roger Grody, Monterey Park program administrator. "It's like old-fashioned barn-raising."

Grody said the program seems to work for these reasons: No tax money is involved, volunteers see the direct impact of their work, it's community based, it calls for a limited commitment of time, and it answers an apparent need for well-off Americans to do something concrete for the less fortunate.

Grody, who works as coordinator for Monterey Park's community development department, found out about the Carrillos' need last year when the couple received federal housing help. He finds other houses in need of help simply by driving around, he said.

Monterey Park, Pasadena and Pomona are the three cities in the area with Christmas in April chapters; they have recruited 1,200 volunteers to repair 32 homes. The volunteers' time and the free building materials are valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars. In addition, cash donations of $80,000 pay for additional supplies.

Yet, if Christmas in April demonstrates the potential power of volunteers, it also underscores their limits. The group's expected accomplishment nationwide this year represents less than 1% of the need; 5.5 million low-income elderly homeowners live in the United States, and millions more low-income homeowners cannot afford repair work.

"There are never enough organizations or enough people to help people in need, but this is one opportunity to help the people in need in a very visible way . . . and we make the neighborhoods look better," said Norm Lieberman, president of the Monterey Park chapter. In 1991, Monterey Park became the first city in Southern California to begin the program.

"I think there is a definite need out there that isn't filled in any other way. They don't need help all year long or tons of money--they just need a boost," said Teresa McKee of Fannie Mae Foundation, a federal mortgage association. Its 44 volunteers will paint the interior and exterior of Carrillo's home and also do minor repairs.

"This appeals to me because, unlike other charitable work, there is no feeling of vagueness when you don't know where the money is going. But with this, we work very hard at the one-day shot and we see (the results)," McKee said. "It's a pride thing. . . . We want folks to enjoy their homes instead of watching them deteriorate."

Carrillo couldn't have asked for a better Christmas in April.

"I appreciate it . . . We want to live here and die here too."

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