Rebuilding Together Peninsula (formerly Christmas in April)
Stories from the trenches, as told by House Captains and Volunteer Coordinators

revised 04/15/2004


I've been a volunteer with the local Rebuilding Together Peninsula volunteer organization that rebuilds the homes of the low-income and elderly in the San Francisco Peninsula for about 10 years now.  The service area is from South San Francisco to Sunnyvale, although most of the projects are in East Palo Alto, East Menlo Park, and community buildings in the area.  Rebuilding Together Peninsula is part of a national organization that rebuilds so many homes as a non-profit, that if it were compared with national building companies that operate year round, it would be something like the 6th or 7th largest homebuilder, and we only do our projects once a year using volunteers, on the last Saturday in April.  If you want to volunteer, call your local chapter, which you can find at the National Rebuilding Together website.  If you want to volunteer to work on a site in the Rebuilding Together Peninsula service area, call Loretta or Seana at 650-366-6597 sometime in early April.  If you want a wild time, ask for a project with a new house captain.  If you want a really wild time, ask to be a new house captain.  Just commit to finishing ;-)

Got a story to share?  Send it to me here!

Disasters we did to ourselves
I really like the title of Robert Fulgham's book "It was on fire when I lay on it", which is the response given firefighters upon asking an occupant how the bed he was in caught fire.  This is an especially good analogy for what happens in Rebuilding Together projects where enthusiastic volunteers (and house captains) caught up in the spirit of the event try to heroically do things they would never contemplate doing in their own home ;-)


Disasters others did to us
These are the stories of things that make House Captaining the job you either love or hate.  If only clairvoyance were a learnable skill...


Previewing Stories

Volunteers we'll never forget

Homeowners we'll always remember (for better or for worse)


Disasters we did to ourselves

Tripping on paint cans in exactly the wrong places:(JC)  It was in '93 or '94, and we were painting a hallway with a vigorous volunteer group.  As always, there were open, half-full 5 gallon paint buckets here and there along the length of the hallway.  One of the volunteers (V) was walking backwards, and managed to plant his foot smack in the middle of the paint bucket, then lost his balance and fell backwards while still wearing the bucket on his foot.  There were some drop cloths on the hall floor, but as the paint flowed out of the un-rightable bucket stuck to the toppled volunteers foot, about 2-3 gallons of paint was somehow completely disappearing... into the open floor gas heater grille directly below!  We removed the entire floor heater assembly, disconnecting it from the gas line, and took it outside for V to clean up with a hose, which kept him fully occupied for the balance of the afternoon.

Tripping out on Psychotropics in the back yard with a chainsaw:(JC)  It was '94 or '95, the only year it poured rain on CinA day, and the volunteer group was nevertheless committed to doing a fence, some tree trimming, and back yard cleanup - this was the day to do it, it didn't matter if it was pouring rain, we wanted to get it done, and never come back.  It was a rather difficult house with difficult homeowners and residents, and as it turned out included a particularly difficult agave plant in the back yard.  This was not your run-of-the-mill houseplant agave, this thing was about 12' in diameter, smack in the middle of the back yard, with broad leaves edged with sharp spikes.  As you tried to move from one side of the yard to the other, it razor-sharp leaves would saw flesh from your arm, and everyone grew to hate it.  Some brave soul decided to do away with it, using a chain saw, which seemed like the best available tool.  About 20 minutes sawing away at the base, he and 2 or 3 nearby volunteers started feeling really weird, and we called poison control.  After hearing the description of the plant, the poison control folks said something like "let me get this straight - you're using a chainsaw on a giant agave?  You idiots!  If you wanted to produce a fine inhalation aerosol for delivering a psychotropic drug like agave to a large group of people, you couldn't have come up with a better delivery method than using a chainsaw.  Put the chainsaw away, give everyone drink plenty of water to drink, and have someone drive the psycho-trippers home!"

"Now be sure not to spill any paint on this brand new carpet":(JC)  Those were my own words as House Captain in 2001 when 1500 square feet of brand new donated carpet with installation had to occur the day before RT day, when we were to paint the inside of the church sanctuary surrounding the new carpet tile.  The old carpet we tore out was worn through to the concrete in several places, and just having the new carpet alone made a huge difference.  During our site meeting, I announced the quoted phrase above, drawing particular notice to the difficulty of cleaning up paint from carpet.  Of course, when I needed to move some nearly full cans of primer from one volunteer group to another, I carefully supported them from the bottom.  A paint can will naturally hang in the least-spillable angle if you just hold it by the handle, but I was being extra careful and supporting it from the bottom.  Imagine my surprise as I walked out the hallway and felt something cold and wet running down my leg and into my shoe.  Dang.  I took off my paint-soaked shoe and sock, delivered the paint less the few quarts I dumped on the new carpet floor to the requesting volunteers in a different area, ran out to my van, changed my shoes and socks, pulled out the shop vac, got a 5 gallon bucket of water and a scrub brush, and returned to choruses of "look - somebody spilled a bunch of paint on the new carpet".  Without comment, I had one volunteer pour water on the carpet, another scrub the watery area like crazy, and another suck up the effluent with the shop vac.  Poof, in 5 minutes, the primer was completely gone and without a trace!  As there were no witnesses to the original incident, a few people might have suspected who spilled the paint at the time and not said anything, but now everyone who was there knows who did it.  True Confessions.

Installing window shades is a snap (SH):  This year, 2002, we had taken down our Home Owner's curtains in the bedroom two weeks prior to the 27th, on our first prep day. Our House Captain (EP) took them home and washed them for our Home Owner. At about 4:30 on the 27th, we went in to hang the curtains back up. There were 3 of us, the House Captain, me, and a Volunteer (MG). The Volunteer said she'd put them on the rods for us and take care of hanging them so we could do something else. Once she realized that there were 10 pieces of sheers and only 2 windows, she called us back for help. Only we couldn't remember how exactly they went back up.

Each window has two rods, a swagging top rod and the long sheers under. We got one of the top rods done, but the under sheers were a bone of contention. The House Captain  swore the ruffles went on the outside of the window and I thought they went down the middle, but I wasn't 100% sure. So we put the ruffle on the outside. I hung the top rod and then tried hanging the under rod. That didn't work because I couldn't see the hooks on the wall that the rods needed to fit into. So we took the top rod down, put up the under rod and rehung the upper rod. It didn't look right.

We called our Home Owner and she said the ruffle was in the middle of the window. So down the curtains came and we switched the sheers, ruffle on the inside. Up it went, only to find that they were inside out. Down it came and I was handed the other under rod to hang. The end didn't fit on hooks over that window. The hooks on the wall and the size of the end of the rods were slightly different. So I waited for the sheers to be put on rightside out. We got that done, and I went to hang them - and the hook pulled out of the wall!

By this time, a second Volunteer (LG) had joined us. We tried to hang the curtains over the second window while the hooks were screwed into the wall over the first window. Again, the curtains were inside out. I suggested flipping them over the rod. This still left them inside out but now twisted around the rod. We took them down. Our first Volunteer suggested just taking the rod apart and switching ends. This would have worked beautifully had the other end not been the one that needed to hook into the wall. We eventually had to take the sheers completely off and rethread them over the rod.

It took the 4 of us over an hour to hang curtains on 2 windows!

"I'll just put this toilet in the front yard for a few minutes"(JC)  This was my first year volunteering for Rebuilding Together (then called Christmas in April), I believe it was 1992, and I found it ironic to have been coupled as a "skilled plumber" (credentials like this are easy to get in RT)  with a large law firm, since a startup I had founded had recently been driven into bankruptcy by strategic but false lawsuits filed by a (different) large law firm.  I really didn't take inventory of the number of bathrooms in the house, but after removing the toilet to replace the closet flange, it became clear this was the only toilet in the house, as people kept showing up at the bathroom door with disappointed looks upon seeing a large hole in the floor where the toilet should be.  Now, there were about 6 or 7 of us piled in the bathroom, some painting, some doing electrical work, some trying to install a vanity - the usual CinA fire drill.  Since there wasn't anywhere to put the toilet while I was working on replacing the flange, I carried it out to the front yard.  I didn't notice this at the time, but it turned out that there were actually several toilets already decorating the front and back yard, so when I finished installing the new closet flange and went out to retrieve the toilet, nobody was surprised it had been taken to the dump except me.  Someone went to the RT warehouse to get a replacement toilet.  I had unthreaded the original fittings from the wall, leaving them on the toilet when I carried it out to the front yard.  I didn't recognize the thread type at all on the pipe nipple coming out of the wall - I suspect it was either a hose bib thread, or some strange thread type I just hadn't seen before. I went to the plumbing store to buy a collection of every adapter I could get my hands on of the same diameter, which proved fruitless, as none of them would screw onto the thread on the nipple on the wall.  Another enthusiastic volunteer went with the BFI volunteer to drive back to the dump and retrieve the original toilet and fittings that had been thrown out.  I removed the fittings from the original toilet around 6PM, and installed them on the new one, and a functioning toilet was again available.  Of course, by then, all the law firm volunteers had finished and left to find a functioning toilet somewhere else!  

"I'm an electrical engineer - this electrical problem should be a snap"(JC)  The house this year was built by a handyman/carpenter 30 years earlier, and for those same 30 years, it had 2 electrical boxes in an upstairs hallway with 6-8 wires sticking out of each them where light fixtures should be, and 2 wall switches forming a pair of lights controlled by a pair of "3 way switches".  Now 3 way switches perform what is known as an "exclusive or" operation, whereby the light turns on only if the switches are in "different" positions.  As house captain, and with the project well underway and everyone busy, I was drawn to this electrical problem like a moth to a flame.  I tried all the combinations of switch positions and used a voltmeter to find ANY voltage anywhere.  No luck.  Then, I looked at one of the switches, and found 120V - great - it gets fed here.  20 minutes later, I'm still not voltage anywhere else.  I decided to take a shortcut, and hook all the white wires together, and figure out which of the black ones did something, in accordance with the National Electrical Code, which I actually know.  BAM!  As I connected two white wires together with one bare hand (keeping the other hand behind my back), there was a blue flash accompanied by the pop of the circuit breaker, which answered the question where the voltage was - I was looking for voltage on the 8-10 wire combinations from black to white, instead of from white to white- the homeowner hadn't followed any NEC electrical code conventions when the house was wired.  I marked the hot white wire with black tape, and got the 3 way switch working in no time at all. 

Disasters others did to us

Excuse me ma'am, but what's behind this door?(JC)  From time to time, a house comes along that needs so much work, it mostly looks like triage, rather than a project to be planned.  This 1997 house was a case in point, as the entire kitchen cabinetry was rotting from long term pipe leaks, and the exterior and every room inside the house needed paint and a variety of other repairs.  The rooms I could see and get to needed so much work, that during the previewing and prep day, I never took notice of the inside of the garage, since the homeowners were elderly and didn't drive, and the furnace and water heater were in the house.  On CinA day, and after the volunteers were started on their various jobs, I was trying to make out why there was such a pronounced bowing in one of the living room walls, and the outside garage wall was kicked way out of plumb.  The garage door was locked, so I tried to find the door to the garage, which had a cabinet parked in front of it.  The house was pretty crammed with belongings, so we moved the cabinet and opened the inside garage door to discover that ALL of the ceiling joists had fallen down because the top plates on both sides were rotted through and through. Click here to see a lifetime of structural rot.  The garage was slowly and actively collapsing!  The homeowner had moved the cabinet in front of the door to make way for CinA day.  Of course, I had no supplies at all for this type of repair.  We sent someone down to buy replacement joists, and since the top plates were completely gone, we used a post and one of the volunteers Saab automobile jack to elevate up the fallen roof ridge about 2 feet, then installed ceiling joists (more like purlins above the rot line) to hold the shape of the roof, and installed a parallel set of framed walls next to the rotten walls to support the roof.  We proceeded from front to rear, one set of rafters at a time, until the entire ceiling was secure.  This house had gotten a new roof several days earlier, and I asked the large Tongan roofer who stopped by to pick up leftover roofing supplies if he noticed anything odd when he was walking around the previous day - He said yes, it was real spongy, and he stayed away from that part.  I took him inside to show him how close to collapse it all was, but he seemed to think he could outrun those sorts of catastrophes...

"I wonder what those pieces of plywood are doing behind that refrigerator"(JC)  This was a house in 1998 where a recently widowed homeowner took immaculate care of the front yard, and her late handyman husband had literally hundreds of projects going on simultaneously in the back yard.  He was a hunter, fisherman, sportsman of every description, and had a painting contracting business, and poured excess paint into a mound in the back yard which had formed over several decades of such application into a paint pancake 2 feet thick and 12 feet in diameter.  This house set a personal dumpster record for me at 6 dumpsters of stuff, all of it from the back yard.  This is exclusive of the 2 pickup truck loads of paint cans we took to the paint recycler, who told us to never, ever return to his place of business after we dropped off the second load of paint.  At 2PM, we were still pulling surprise kayaks and ladders out of the back yard, along with various rodents, a litter of kittens, and tons of power tools, many unrecognizable for function and in various stages of disassembly and repair.  We were slowly clearing our way towards the house and a broken refrigerator which was captured by all the stuff in front of it.  We finally got to where we could move away the refrigerator, and 2 sheets of plywood we thought were leaning against the house were actually nailed through the stucco to the house, which puzzled us.  We pulled off the 2 sheets of plywood, and were astonished to discover a 16 foot wall section of the house with all of its studs cut away with a chainsaw and floating in air, an unsupported section of wall that fully spanned the bathroom and tub, which we could see hanging in air, and half of the bedrooms on each side, in addition to several of the floor joists, which were rotten and unsupported.  It was clear that the mud sill, floor joists, and wall studs had rotted out, and the late husband had taken a chainsaw to the rotten lumber, nailed the plywood up, but never got back to fixing it!  I asked the homeowner if she took baths or showers, and she indicated she only took showers - good thing, or she'd have fallen through the floor along with the tub!  A skilled volunteer jumped right on this, and went to a rental yard to buy adjustable pier post jacks and a few headers to support the row of floating floor joists, some of which we were able to double up.  We replaced the mud sill, and framed in a cripple wall section to carry the weight of the roof above to the new mudsill below.

Local Celebrities Join Us:(JC)  There have actually been several over the years, and I won't say which one this was, but he came to my site.  We'll call him "Bill".  Soon after Bill's arrival, I came to understand the strange symbiotic relationship between the press and celebrities.  They're locked together in an eternal embrace, they desperately need each other, but neither is actually in control of the other.  I understood that Bill would be helping us out the day of the event.  At 11AM, after things were well underway, a big limo pulls up, and Bill and an entourage of press folks (video and still photographers) come out.  There was a lot to do in this house, and I was mostly bringing supplies in and out of the house to the various volunteers toiling away.  There was something comical about walking into the house, and seeing Bill holding a paint brush and being photographed, then walking outside 30 seconds later to see Bill mugging for the camera while trimming a bush, turning around, and then Bill is holding some plumbing wrenches and pipes for the camera, and after about 4 more photo ops, boom, he and the press corps are gone in a wisp of exhaust.  It was fast, wacky, and fun.  You really never know what to expect on a CinA project...

I've got a really bad case of the Shingles & Roof Gable, my foot! (JC)  OK, I've been around long enough to see some bad handyman work.  But even bad handyman work comes in grades.  This year, rebuilding together is replacing a brand new roof - installed by friends and family of the homeowner.   You're probably familiar with roofs that "shed" water - each coarse of shingles is laid from bottom to top.  Here's a roof  that "collects water" and dumps it into the house, since it was laid from top to bottom on one side.  This same project includes an addition which was built without a roof gable, thereby creating a continuous indoor waterfall when it rains.  Click on the above link to see.  We will fix this by re-installing the entire roof, and adding a gable between the addition and the main house.

Previewing Stories

But he's such a nice guy/gal:(JC)  I'm a great judge of character.  I can tell good, honest people a mile away.  As a previewer, I go to people's homes, survey their situation, and figure out if RT can help them or not.  Its often quite complicated, but whatever you see and during your conversations with the homeowner, you leave with either an uncertain feeling, or a pretty good connection with them. After the initial previewing acceptance, the tentative list of candidates undergoes more detailed homeowner background checks.  One year, I highly recommended two candidates who, after detailed background reviews, turned out to be a fellow out on bail for murder, and a woman who was arrested selling crack about 20 minutes after I finished previewing her house...

Excuse me, ma'am, but you're looking a bit pale:(JC)    I went to preview a house, and the homeowner had respiratory problems, and was on oxygen.  I was standing in the living room making conversation, inquiring about work that might need to be done around the house.  At some point in our conversation I noticed that a periodic background noise that had been present earlier had ceased, and I turned around and noticed a red light blinking on the oxygen machine.  I looked down and realized I was standing on the woman's oxygen delivery hose.

Volunteers we'll always remember (for better or for worse)

"Oh, I can take care of these in a jiffy":(JC)  As a volunteer, you never know who you're working next to, or what their background might be.  After trimming some overgrowth in the front yard in a house with small children, we exposed a bunch of rebar rods sticking out of an unused part of the foundation, which could have impaled a child tripping and landing on any of the 7 or 8 rods we had exposed.  As I recall, these were pretty serious rebar rods - 3/8 or 1/2 diameter by a foot or two long.  A rather petite woman working in the landscaping group said, "Oh, I can take care of these in a jiffy", and went out to the trunk of her car and pulled out a portable oxy-acetylene rig with a cutting torch attachment, lit a flame about 3 feet long, and each piece of rebar clanged to the ground as she zipped right through it.  I turned out she was a metal sculpture artist, and happened to have her torch with her.

"Those are strange looking hammers": (PC) On volunteer projects, quite often enthusiasm is long, and experience is short.  We were doing paint prep on a house, and I handed out paint scrapers to a group of 5 enthusiastic volunteers.  I returned a bit later to the sound of pounding on the building, and from a distance, I assumed the group was pounding loose nails back into the trim and siding.  But the hammers they were using had no heads!  Upon closer inspection, I discovered that all 5 volunteers were removing paint by pounding on the paint ... with the paint scrapers!  I gave a quick demonstration to the red-faced volunteers, who were delighted to discover how effective they were when used with the alternate method... 

"This is a perfectly good shovel.  I've used  it since 1948"  (JC) I admire frugality.  One of the groups I work with has some  proudly frugal volunteers.  I know enough about shovels to know they come in spade point and flat point.  This one looked like a double spade point, which I had never seen.  The volunteer showed it to me, and happily declared, "its still practically new".

Mind if I take a few things out of this dumpster?  (JC) From time to time, a gigantic cleanup project comes along, and this was the year for one.  After harvesting 3 dead automobiles, 9 bicycles, 7 lawnmowers, and 6 rototillers from the un-mowed, un-rototilled yard, we moved on to the piles of garbage and scrap metal lying everywhere, which we threw into the dumpster.  We were rapidly filling up the dumpster with bedframes, TV antennas, beer cans, and the usual assortment of backyard crap, when a homeless guy riding a bicycle comes along and asks the above question.  I said sure, and he instantly dove in, retrieving every metal object placed among the muck, diligently hauling uncountable armloads of metal away on his bicycle, including a gigantic pile forming in the front lawn of stuff that didn't fit in the dumpster, and carefully repacked the dumpster as he went.  I estimate he took away a full dumpster load of metal, enabling us to fill it with other junk, and saving us $350 in additional dumpster fees.

"Dude - where are my skiis?" (JC) This project mostly involved house repairs, but also included  the heartbreaking task of removing personal items that belonged to the homeowner's adult son who had moved back home following a cancer treatment that had left him with "graft vs host disease" whereby white blood cells from his bone marrow transplant were attacking his body, leaving him in a chronically weak state, with many emergency hospital visits.  We were removing his no longer useful sporting goods from a shed for donation to Goodwill.  At that moment, and without witnesses, some enthusiastic volunteer returning from a ski trip smartly added his new high performance skis to the pile of stuff in our car being sent off.  Don't ask me - I don't know why, either.  Pam called from Goodwill to confirm that everything was being donated, and I proposed she hang on to the new skiis and they be sold with the proceeds going to the homeowner.  Shortly afterwards, the young man tracked me down as the owner of the car he had put his skiis in for safekeeping and asked me "Dude - where is your car and where are my skiis?".

"Hey-these screws are messed up - get me some new ones" (JC) This was the exclamation from a manager at a high tech company, working on a garden project attaching benderboard to stakes using sheetrock screws and a cordless screwdriver.  I thought it odd that an entire box of sheetrock screws would go wrong, so without looking, I asked "Is the cordless screwdriver set to forward or reverse?"  Long silence.  "Never Mind".


Homeowners we'll always remember (for better or for worse)

"I never trusted that woman":(JC)  This was one of my all-time favorite RT Projects in 1997.  A husband and wife in their late 80s had lived in the same house for 60 some years.  They were a cute and inseparable couple, and shared their lives with everyone who stopped by.  They were very gracious, preparing food for the volunteers in spite of their age and failing health, and personally thanked each volunteer, telling them how much the house improvements meant to them.  Besides their new kitchen, and landscaped front yard, we installed used but very fine wool carpeting that had been removed from the San Francisco St. Francis Hotel. When I met with them after the project was completed,  the husband pulled out an envelope of ancient photos showing him playing saxophone with a band in his youth, 60 years earlier.  His 80 something year old wife promptly picked up the photo, pointed at the lead singer, and announced in an angry voice, "I never trusted that woman". 

"Of all the things you did today, this door is my favorite":(JC)  In 1999, we worked on house where the homeowner was a widow living alone with progressive MS, and was at a stage where she could still move around inside her house in a wheelchair, and relied on a nurse who dropped by in the mornings to check on her and deliver prepared meals for her to heat later in the day.  We painted the front and the back exterior of the row-house, and painted the living room and kitchen.  But there were two things she profusely thank us for: hanging the front door hinges from the opposite side so she could roll her wheelchair to the side of the door and open it fully herself to greet visitors, instead of from the opposite side, where the door opened adjacent to a perpendicular wall, and she formerly had to iteratively open and inch her wheelchair backwards, without knowing who was at the door until it was fully open.  The other was installing an additional electrical service so she could have the microwave near the refrigerator and heat her delivered meals by herself without difficulty.

Don't let emphesyma keep you down:(JC)  Most of the people RT helps have health problems.  I remember a friend going through his residency after medical school remarking that when patients hear they have cancer, they will get their life affairs in order and resign themselves to an end, but emphysema patients will fight, struggle, and claw for that last breath.  So it was with a homeowner one year getting her back yard cleared out and landscaped.  She suffered from severe emphezema, and was a tough nut.  She was very easily rendered breathless by just moving around, requiring 10 minutes after any effort to recover her breath, during which time she took on an impassioned, intense glare.  During the National Rebuilding Day, she would move with her walker to a window where she spotted something needing to be done differently, and would collapse in a chair for 10 minutes to recover her breath, then stand up and yell instructions for 5 or 10 seconds, after which she would be fully spent, collapsing into her chair for another 10 minutes to recover her breath, only to spot something new and start all over again.

Like lemons, do you?(JC)  Our elderly homeowner planted a lemon tree with her father on the family homestead as a young woman.  Over the years, the homestead was subdivided and other houses were built around it, and fences went up.  Unfortunately, her lemon tree was planted a foot over the property line, and her obstinate personality caused the new neighbor to prune it to deny her access to the lemons from the tree she planted half a century ago



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