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Foundations of Goodwill : 'Christmas in April' Volunteers Fix Up Homes for Needy


LONG BEACH — Montry Speech's old, one-story house on Lime Avenue had been invaded. Wherever she walked with her cane, she had to squeeze past volunteers in green T-shirts who carried ladders, hammers and brushes.

The smell of paint drifted onto the front lawn where a new TV antenna waited in the sun to be taken up to the roof. The sounds of power tools clashed with the melodies of the ice cream trucks as they passed on the street.

It all happened Saturday afternoon on what was called "Christmas in April." The Junior League of Long Beach was overseeing a program that, in a one-day blitz, would rehabilitate several houses owned by the poor, elderly and disabled. Nationally, the program involved more than 3,200 homes in 240 cities.

About 40 people had been working at the Speech house since early morning. All of the rooms were being painted, safety latches on the window security bars were being repaired, a new stove and a toilet for the disabled were being installed, new locks were being put on the front door. And that was just some of the work.

"Oh, it's great, isn't it?" said Speech, 80, a widow who has lived in the house since 1969, when it was already old. Forty years ago, she made airplane parts in a San Diego factory, and later cleaned houses in Long Beach. She stopped working two years ago and now lives on Social Security.

"It's hard to believe that something like this could happen," Speech said, as a volunteer showed her how to work a new deadbolt lock. "I don't have no money saved, but I just have to go on and live. I tell you, I've had so much bad luck. My granddaughter has a bad heart."

Granddaughter Ramona Wright, 44, who has been ill for about a year and needs a heart transplant, wasn't home. She had gone to a friend's house to avoid the paint fumes. Wright's daughter, Denotra Culberson, 15, a freshman at Lakewood High who also lives in the house, was getting her nails done at a salon.

"My great-granddaughter is so happy," Speech said. "She said, 'Granny, I'm so glad they're fixing your house.' "

Eight houses and three nonprofit facilities--the Boys and Girls Club, the Long Beach Day Nursery and the John Tracy Clinic for children with hearing disabilities--had been selected by the Junior League for repair. The Junior League is an organization of 300 women who volunteer for projects designed to meet community needs.

Heather Keller, whose cellular phone REHABREHAB: Total Community Effort gave away her status as the event's co-chairperson, said the homeowners were referred by churches, neighborhood groups and service and health organizations. Corporations and associations then "adopted" a house, donated $2,500 for the materials and put together a team of volunteers. Altogether, there were about 600 volunteers at the sites.

"It's like an old-fashioned barn-raising," Keller said. "People want to help others, and they want to see that they have made a difference. It's a lot of work to be done in one day, but when they leave they're going to be able to stand back and see the house completely different than when they walked in."

A health agency had brought Ramona Wright to Keller's attention. When Keller checked, she discovered that Speech owned the house and has, despite arthritis, been taking care of her granddaughter and great-granddaughter.

"I thought, 'Gee, we've got to do something for these people,' " Keller said.

The volunteers at Speech's house were from Hamilton Standard, an aerospace company near Long Beach Airport that repairs jet fuel controls, propellers and environmental control systems.

Landis Buchman, a Hamilton Standard electrician in charge of the home-improvement project, had been visiting the house all week to get things ready. He wore a hard hat stenciled with "Capt. Bucky" over his gray-flecked hair.

"It's a good opportunity for all of us to do something for the community," Buchman said over an electric sander in the back yard that was strewn with tools, security-light cartons, bags of plastering material and much of Montry Speech's furniture.

Some of the "Christmas in April" volunteers were from building trade unions, but Buchman's crew was composed mostly of middle- and upper-management people with no natural affinity to hammers and paint brushes.

"The control inspector is sitting over there," Buchman said. "The lead man of the fuel control repair room is over there; you're looking at the controller of the company right there; you're looking here at the man who used to be the office manager; there's obviously the big boss; the lady painting with the blue hat on is in charge of engineering and quality control, (that) guy's a propeller mechanic."

Amid this commotion, a man pulled up in a truck and gave Keller a $20-bill as a donation for the project.

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