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When 2,800 Iowa National Guard and Army Reserve troops were called up for overseas duty last fall — the most since World War II — the American Legion of Iowa put out a call for volunteers to help some of the hundreds of young families left behind.
With Operation Troop Support, “we were looking for people who might shovel a sidewalk, relight a pilot light or do other small chores around the house for the families of those troops,” said Kathy Nees, the Legion’s state program director.
HBA council member Gail Harrison, a project analyst for Wells Fargo and the mother of two sons serving in Afghanistan, knew that her colleagues in the building industry would be able and more than willing to help.
She also knew that, all too often, families whose fathers or mothers are deployed are victimized by unscrupulous contractors who overcharge for simple home repairs, or who get away with shoddy work because they are overtaxed by the extra stress that a deployment brings or simply don’t know enough about what needs to be done.
So, with the organizational skills of the PWB, the technical skills of the HBA’s Remodelers Council and fundraising and materials support from the rest of the membership, the HBA of Greater Des Moines partnered with the American Legion to secure quality work from reputable contractors.
The Legion staff, serving as the point of contact for requests for help, screened the requests to make sure that families with the most critical needs and the least financial resources would be helped first. Legion staff then contacted the PWB to help them find the contractors needed.
“The soldiers feel a little more comfortable going through the American Legion,” Harrison said. “We tried to make it as easy as possible that way.”
The Remodelers Council volunteers stepped up by offering to do the work at cost — although, Nees said, “most of the time, they ended up not charging anything, or charging very little.”
Then to help reduce costs even more, HBA members decided to pool the revenue from their regularly scheduled garage sale of extra building materials, as well as from snacks and beverages sold at the sale, to buy materials for the work done on behalf of the families.
While some of the tasks undertaken by the HBA volunteers were as simple as giving a second opinion on an estimate for a repair, which ended up saving one family more than $1,000, some tasks were more complex.
Before Christmas, for instance, the wife of a deployed serviceman e-mailed Nees for help. Her basement had flooded, ruining the flooring and carpeting in the basement bedrooms, and her insurance company denied coverage. A Federal Emergency Management Agency contact told her the agency couldn’t help, either.
So she turned to Nees.
“I have been trying very hard to save money to get our basement put back together. I have even started a second job to get additional money saved up,” the wife said in her e-mail. “Any little bit would help me right now.”
“Our living area is down there, and I want to get carpet back down so it isn't so cold down there and we can get our Christmas tree put up on carpet instead on a concrete floor,” she wrote.
The HBA’s executive officer, Creighton Cox, contacted Habitat for Humanity ReStore for assistance and then took the woman to the store to select the vinyl flooring and other materials for the project.
“I’ve got a buddy in Afghanistan with a wife and six-month-old here at home, and this situation just tugs at me a lot,” Cox said in an e-mail to Lance Henning, the store’s manager.
The Habitat ReStore donated the drywall for the project and offered other materials at a discounted rate. A local carpet company gave the family a significant discount on replacement carpet and a painter donated his services as well.
Remodeler John Kittrell, of Kittrell Homes, spearheaded the construction, making it possible for the family to once again use the basement rooms.
Kittrell said that while he had never served in the military, his father and grandfather had, “and that this was his way of giving back,” she said.
That same spirit has moved the other PWB and Remodelers Council and other HBA members to offer assistance to other families in need, including helping make the home of a disabled veteran handicapped-accessible.
The HBA has also decided to help beyond the home front by giving supplies to the soldiers in the field.
When their son, who is deployed, requested tools that his fellow soldiers needed to complete and improve their living conditions in his remote barracks, Greg and Cheryl Arganbright, of Woodharbor Doors & Cabinets, organized a drive among HBA members to send him the tools.
“He knew the HBA could get what they needed faster than the National Guard,” Harrison said. “The tools and any supplies not used will then be donated to the Afghan nationals to use for their own home repairs — so it’s truly the completion of a very large circle of support.”
“It’s Iowa, we’re kind of a tight-knit place,” Harrison explained. “It’s good to know that people are still willing to take care of friends and neighbors.”