In Loudoun County, a giver gets a chance to receive

December 12, 2013

For years, Janice Coe has been well known in her Loudoun County community as a fervent advocate for the homeless. She keeps extra coats and gloves in her car in case she encounters someone who needs them. She donates meals and blankets and towels. She frequently invites homeless families to stay in her house until she can help them find another place to go.

But earlier this year, Coe, a 66-year-old widow and the former director of social services for the homeless advocacy nonprofit group Good Shepherd Alliance, fell on hard times herself. She lost her job as an administrative assistant at a law firm when its office closed. As she continued to look for work, bills piled up: car payments, utilities, repairs to the old house in Leesburg that she inherited from her husband. The roof, one contractor warned, desperately needed to be replaced.

“When he told me how much it was going to cost, I just thought, ‘Oh, Lord, you’ve got to help me on this. I don’t have that kind of money,’ ” Coe said.

She mentioned the problem to a few friends and neighbors. “But mostly, I just prayed on it,” Coe said.

Her community answered.

More than a dozen people submitted nominations on Coe’s behalf to the “Free Roof for the Holidays” contest, held annually by DryHome Roofing & Siding, a small business owned by Loudoun resident Steve Gotschi. The contest, in its 11th year, awards a new roof at no cost to a struggling Northern Virginia resident or charitable organization.

The letters for Coe started arriving soon after the contest was announced.

“I have known Janice for several years and she has been exemplary in being there for the less fortunate, not only by giving to the homeless but taking them into her home often for weeks or months at a time when the shelters were full,” one read.

“Please consider giving her a new roof. She will use it not only to cover herself, but those in our region who are less fortunate,” said another.

When Gotschi stood on Coe’s front step last week and told her that her home would have a new roof before Christmas, he read the names of those who nominated her. He had to, he said, before she believed the prize was real.

“I wanted to cry,” Coe said of the moment she realized that Gotschi’s company really was going to fix her roof for free. “I actually did cry. It took me awhile to digest it.”

Several of the nominating letters cited a 2011 Washington Post article that featured Coe, who went to great lengths to help a young homeless mother who was sleeping in a Metro station with her toddler and infant son.

Coe paid for the family to stay in a hotel and helped the young mother enroll for food stamps and other aid through Loudoun’s Department of Family Services.

Even as Coe has faced her own financial struggles, she has continued her charitable work. She received numerous invitations to Thanksgiving dinners, she said, but stuck to her plans to deliver home-cooked meals to shelters and serve dinner for the homeless at her house.

“What she has done for the community herself is amazing,” Gotschi said.

DryHome’s free roof contest typically receives 10 to 20 entries each year, Gotschi said. The number of people supporting Coe’s nomination was among the highest he’s seen.

The small committee that chose the winner didn’t deliberate for long. “It was a unanimous decision,” Gotschi said. “I also did a drive-by on her house and saw how bad her roof was.”

Coe’s advocacy for the homeless holds a particular resonance for Gotschi, who said he went through tough times himself as a young man, including a brief period when he lived in his truck.

Gotschi doesn’t like to discuss that time in his life, he said, but it helped him understand the importance of helping those in need.

“The community has been so good to us, and we wanted to give back to the community, and this is a way to do that directly,” he said. “Every [contest winner] is somewhat unique. [Coe] lost her job. She was probably overdue for a new roof by more than five years, and this isn’t just helping her — it’s also helping out all of the people she helps.”

On Wednesday morning, about a dozen workers swept the snow from Coe’s battered roof and got to work. New shingles were installed in about six hours, and workers returned Thursday morning to attach new gutters. When the weather warms, Gotschi said, a sealant will be applied to other parts of the roof.

The job would normally cost about $7,500, he said.

Coe stood outside her home Thursday morning and stared. “It was just like a dream,” she said. “It went from the worst roof to the best roof.”

Six homeless guests are staying with her under that roof, she said — two individuals and a family of four, including a 3-month-old baby. She says she will likely have a full house over the Christmas holiday. She said she was still overwhelmed by the gift. “I’m so used to doing things myself that it was kind of difficult for me to take it in that this was actually happening for me,” she said.

But Coe said she spoke to a friend in her prayer group Thursday morning, who reminded her that it is equally important to graciously receive as to give.

“She said, ‘You know, Janice, you do so much for others,’ ” Coe said. “She said, ‘Sometimes, God is merciful to us and blesses us, and so this is your time now, and you have to accept it.’

“And she’s right.”

Caitlin Gibson is a local news and features writer for The Washington Post.
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