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Ministry builds, recycles cottages for elderly people

A transportable cottage, built in partnership with the United Methodist Relief Center in Charleston County, S.C., will be moved to the property of Robert Simmons, 69, to replace his partially collapsed home. A UMNS photo by Heidi Robinson.

By Heidi Robinson*
Sept.15, 2008 | CHARLESTON COUNTY, S.C. (UMNS)

Robert Simmons surveys the blue tarp tacked to the roof of the home that he built more than four decades ago for his mother and himself.

Simmons sits in front of his current home. A UMNS photo by Heidi Robinson.

"I won’t be sad when they tear this down. In fact, it will be a good day," says Simmons, 69, noting the house's warped metal roofing and rotting wood.

Simmons isn't a sentimental homeowner. His house is literally collapsing around him, and buckets have become permanent fixtures throughout the living area to collect rainwater trickling through leaks in the ceiling. To get drinking water, he must go down the road to his brother's house because Simmons' tap water is "full of rust."

But things are about to change for the retired paper mill worker, who suffers from emphysema and can't afford to make repairs on a $7,000 annual income.

"I prayed to God for help," says Simmons "I’m a man of few words, but I can tell you a good thing is coming."

About 15 miles away, a crew of South Carolina home inspectors hammer a ceiling into the new one-bedroom, one-bath cottage being built for Simmons in partnership with the United Methodist Relief Center.

It’s a Saturday morning, and 65-year-old Bill Jacques could be golfing or fishing. But he's happy instead to work with his hands. "We’re doing this for someone who needs us," Jacques says.

The crew comes from two professional organizations—South Carolina American Society of Home Inspectors and South Carolina Association of Home Inspectors. The groups collectively donated $10,000 and more than 700 volunteer hours working on this cottage and expect to finish in a matter of weeks.

"No one complains about coming here on Saturdays," says Kevin Westendorff. "There is something deep inside us that makes us want to help people. We get satisfaction out of this."

Residents 'deserve dignity'

The United Methodist Relief Center picks up the rest of the $35,000 price tag for the 700-square-foot home. When finished, the cottage will meet the strictest building codes and could be placed anywhere in the state.

Simmons' home is literally falling down.
A UMNS photo by Heidi Robinson.

"We intentionally named this program Elderly Transportable Housing," says Pat Goss, executive director of United Methodist Relief Center, explaining that the mobile cottages are home for these senior citizens.

"These are the people who worked hard all their lives, took care of children, and now they deserve dignity for their later years."

The average cottage recipient is 85 years old, and most live on incomes of less than $7,000 a year—usually a combination of Social Security and Supplemental Security Income payments.

"Most of these folks have worked their entire lives, but not in jobs that provided retirement or security," Goss says. "One elderly man moved into his cottage at the age of 93 and lived to be 101! We believe having safe, secure housing extends the health and lives of these seniors."

More than 50 of the transportable cottages have been built and moved around the state. UMRC partners on the projects with United Methodist congregations as well as Catholic, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches. The majority are built by volunteers in church parking lots.

"We’re doing two important things," Goss says. "We’re not only helping the people who live in these beautiful cottages, we’re also helping the folks who volunteer to construct them. Volunteers build their faith when they build these homes."

Overcoming poverty

UMRC opened its doors in 1989 after Hurricane Hugo devastated counties in South Carolina and other areas of the southeastern United States. Initially, the center performed disaster relief, but officials soon realized that poverty was claiming as many homes as the storms were.

Volunteer Pat Turner fires a nail into a cottage ceiling. A UMNS photo by Heidi Robinson.

"Most of our neighbors who receive these homes live in conditions that are unacceptable. They are not going to report that they don’t have indoor plumbing or a safe source of heat, and they have no way to fix it," says volunteer Clarence Westendorff, 65.

The program provides the recipients with not only a new home, but a fully furnished one—right down to plates and silverware. "All they need to bring is their clothing," Westendorff says.

UMRC maintains ownership, insurance and maintence on the cottages and leases the homes to recipients at no cost for as long as they need independent housing. After a recipient moves to managed care or dies, the home returns to UMRC and volunteers or church groups refurbish them, sharing the $15,000 cost with UMRC. The resurrected cottages are then given to new recipients.

"It’s the ultimate recycling program," Westendorff says.

This year alone, eight cottages came back to UMRC for refurbishing, and the waiting list for seniors citizens needing safe housing stands at 45.

On the move

Another UMRC program recycles old beachfront homes that are being discarded in an exclusive resort area outside of Charleston.

A cottage that once sat on South Carolina oceanfront property is hauled to a rural area to become a new home for a family in need. A UMNS photo courtesy of UMRC.

"Beachfront houses on Isle of Palms shot up to the millions of dollars in value, but the value was in the beach," Goss says. "The people buying the property didn’t want the 12-1,500-square-foot cottages."

But UMRC did. In 1999, its Houses on the Move began transporting the unwanted beach homes to rural families.

"These are the folks who live at the end of dirt roads. They are not complaining about their needs, but their living conditions are substandard. Their homes are not repairable, and they need help for themselves and their children," Goss says.

More than 70 homes have been moved from Isle of Palms and given to new owners. The recipients' average income is well below $20,000 for a family of four.

"We are a tangible witness to the love of God in this world," Goss says. "These homes are about giving people hope."

*Robinson is a freelance producer based in Winston-Salem, N.C.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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