Meeting the Challenge: Rebuilding Together lends a hand for home repair

Meeting the Challenge: Rebuilding Together lends a hand for home repair

Editor’s Note: This is the seventh in a series of stories about local nonprofits and how they have dealt with the challenges of the pandemic and their plans for 2021.

EDWARDSVILLE — To Chris Azar, the numbers prove the need.

Azar is president of Rebuilding Together Southwest Illinois, which is committed to rehabilitating the houses of low-income, elderly, veterans and homeowners with a disability.

Rebuilding Together is the nation’s leading nonprofit organization working to preserve affordable homeownership and revitalize neighborhoods by providing home repair and renovation services free of charge to those in need.

“In 2019, we had 92 people that requested help, and so far in 2020, we’ve had 162 people call us,” said Azar, whose organization services all of Madison County. “That shows the need is there and the economy is hurting. A lot of people can’t afford to do repairs on their house.

“All things considered, we’ve had a great year in 2020, but I think we can be even better in 2021. I think we can help more people in need.”

Like many other nonprofits, Rebuilding Together Southwest Illinois has had to cancel nearly all of its fundraising events for 2020.

That’s doubly frustrating for Azar because the fundraising drives are also used to recruit volunteers.

“We know that fundraising is more about raising community awareness than just raising money,” Azar said. “While every penny counts, the money alone won’t build a wheelchair ramp, and that’s where losing that community awareness hurts. We’re trying to ramp up our social media presence, but without those fundraisers, it’s hard to get volunteers.”

With fundraisers on hold, building partnerships with other local nonprofits has become more important than ever for Rebuilding Together.

Over the past few months, Rebuilding Together Southwest Illinois and Edwardsville Neighbors have partnered on four projects for people in need, including three wheelchair ramps and a wheelchair lift.

“We also partnered with Metro East Community Rotary Club and also we worked on a couple of projects with Faith Coalition,” Azar said. “Those partnerships have helped us tremendously.”

Rebuilding Together Southwest Illinois was a member agency of the United Way of Greater St. Louis, but much of its United Way funding for 2021 has been cut.

“The United Way has been undergoing a reorganization for the last couple of years and they are encouraging smaller nonprofits like us to reach out into the community and form these coalitions and partnerships,” Azar said. “The nonprofit world has just exploded and everybody and their brother has a 501c3 (tax-exempt status as a charitable organization) and the United Way can’t keep up.

“The United Way reached out to us and asked if we would like to apply for transitional support, so we did receive some grant money for 2021 at 60 percent of what they would normally give us. We’re looking for other ways to make up for the rest of that funding loss.”

Sara Berkbigler, executive director of Main Street Community Center, is the treasurer for Rebuilding Together Southwest Illinois, which is all volunteers with no paid staff.

“Now that we don’t have an executive director taking a salary, that money is going straight back to the homeowners that we serve,” Azar said.

In 2019, Rebuilding Together Southwest Illinois completed six home repair projects, with a seventh project carried over into 2020.

This year, the organization has completed 16 projects and is carrying three more into 2021.

“That increase is because there is so much more need,” Azar said. “We have also had more active participation by our board of directors and we’re trying to rebuild our board at the same time.”

The number of completed projects more than doubled despite not having as many volunteers as usual.

“During the pandemic, we haven’t been able to reach out to the Boy Scouts or church groups to have a bunch of volunteers come out and help,” Azar said. “In lieu of that, we’ve had some highly skilled volunteers that have been able to do the work.

“We’re focusing on the mission of repairing peoples’ houses, which is fine for this year, but when you bring out those large groups of volunteers, we know we’re creating the next generation of carpenters, roofers and plumbers. We’ve been able to do a lot of work this year, but we haven’t been able to build the talent pool going forward.”

One of Azar’s favorite stories, which is on the Rebuilding Together Southwest Illinois Facebook page, illustrates how the organization works with other local nonprofits to provide much-needed services to the community.

In this instance, it was a cooperative effort with Edwardsville Neighbors.

“The homeowner, during last winter, had started a fire in his fireplace to help heat the home, but forgot to open the flue,” Azar said. “When smoke filled the house, he wasn’t able to get out of his house due to the poor condition of the deck/platforms and no ramp. Thankfully, a neighbor came over and helped him away from the house and was able to fix/open the flue before any damage was done to the house.

“We were able to go in and build him two ramps so that he has a safe way out of his house. We heard about the homeowner through Faith Coalition, so it’s also a good example of the different local non-profits coming together to ensure that a homeowner gets the help they need.”

Shortly after the pandemic started, Rebuilding Together began to follow the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and stopped doing indoor projects.

Since then, the organization has focused on outdoor projects only, with one exception.

“We did an emergency project where someone’s toilet was falling through their floor and we had to do that one,” Azar said. “We wore masks and the homeowner was in the hospital, so her granddaughter let us in. There was little chance of us infecting them or them infecting our volunteers.”

On a national level, Rebuilding Together affiliates complete nearly 10,000 projects a year.

“What we get from our national organization is kind of like what Habitat for Humanity does,” Azar said. They give us overall guidance, but they never tell us exactly what to do. That’s good because we have a lot of autonomy.

“They do more corporate-type support. For instance, Lowe’s paid for every chapter’s insurance across the nation. For us, that’s $2,100 a year, which is a huge saving. The national organization also does corporate advertising and we have had a lot of people call us and say they have seen our commercials, and they ask if we can help them.”

For more information about Rebuilding Together Southwest Illinois, visit, call 618-960-2440 or email

Published at Tue, 22 Dec 2020 14:55:24 +0000

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Written by Riel Roussopoulos


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