Can't hammer a nail in straight? Don't worry. Unskilled labor is highly appreciated in Behrend Builders' Repair the World program. Director Richard Feldman will slap a coil of wire in your hand and suggest that you repair the cyclone fencing outside or hand you a bucket of glue and a trowel to prepare an upstairs bedroom for new carpeting. A few words of instruction, a brief introduction to a trunk full of hand tools, and you're off and running.
You'd think this approach might scare a few people off, but Feldman's philosophy that you "just have to trust in volunteers to do their best" has made his program immensely popular. On this rainy Sunday morning in Northeast Washington, the meeting room of Feldman's latest work in progress is packed with adults and teenagers eager for their day's assignment.
Parents are there with kids, actively sharing their community spirit, but equally impressive are the gaggles of area high schoolers, 20 or 30 of them, who are here to work for the second or third time. They obviously love it. Dan Bromwich, who started a high school club with his buddy Tom Griffith after a similar summer experience, sums up the attraction: "Doing something concrete to help people gives you a feeling of accomplishment. I also like being with people and making something real together."
The energy in the room builds as Feldman delivers his brief introduction to the site, a forlorn strip of rowhouses long used as a crack den by the notorious P Street gang. He points to a remnant of the gang's operations: a crude drive-through consisting of a garage door cut into one bay-front and a gaping hole out the back. Ten years ago the drug houses were seized by the Department of Justice and donated to the Refuge of Hope Disciple Center, an ambitious nonprofit group that provides shelter for women and children and operates outreach centers for job training, crisis intervention and day care. Behrend's volunteers gutted the place three years ago, and the project is nearing completion.
Enough talk. Feldman, a former high school teacher of industrial arts, knows his audience and doesn't sermonize. Downstairs sit a new kitchen and linoleum floor; upstairs are bunk beds for 30, a new laundry room, double-pane windows shimmed into place. Out comes the clipboard; up goes the hand: "I need volunteers for the following." The menu is long, everything from basic cleanup to meticulous carpentry. Once assigned, the group disperses like so many billiard balls, rolling into every corner of the building. Soon the rooms echo with hammers, drills, bright ideas, questions, teasing, laughter.
Just to test Feldman's theory on a true novice, I chose to frame and hang doors. I partnered with three teenagers, Dan, Dino and Bradley. As my experiments with hammer and nail usually come to woe, I asked my new colleagues whether they had any experience hanging doors. Dino's response was worth the whole day. Shortish and wearing sweat pants tenuously suspended from chartreuse boxer shorts, Dino grinned. "No, but confidence is everything in life."
Feldman arrived with a bundle of two-by-fours, a handsaw and measuring tape. He's a small barrel of a man with a trim beard and an enthusiastic, conspiratorial twinkle to his eye, the kind of sparkle that makes anything seem possible. He quickly points out the construction details of an existing door and then disappears into the fray, ever calm, the eye of the storm.
What happened next was pretty marvelous. We measured the three doorways, discovering of course that none of them formed right angles; did the math; improvised a sawhorse with several folding chairs and then sawed the lumber into the right lengths. Really.
In the meantime we, and everybody else, got pretty fast and loose with the repartee. The atmosphere was both very intense -- you do have to concentrate -- and hilarious. You learn a lot about a person when you're holding a screw that he or she is drilling, or balancing on a ladder that he or she is holding. I understood why Wendy Lubic, who frequently brings her daughters to work on projects, says she's found her closest friends at Behrend, just through overcoming challenges together.
At the end of the day, I was proud of how much we had all accomplished. Using the simplest of tools, common sense chief among them, we had pushed this house substantially closer to being a home. I must admit I felt a little moony thinking about the women and children who would walk through that door. I also made a mental note to get in on the next project earlier: It would be nice to tackle plumbing.
BEHREND BUILDERS is part of the D.C. Jewish Community Center's Morris Cafritz Center for Community Service. Behrend fields about 25 different projects a year -- from painting at Rachel's Women's Center to rebuilding the District's largest shelter, the Community for Creative Non-Violence. For information, call Richard Feldman, 202-777-3245, or e-mail email@example.com and request to be placed on Behrend's listserve for dates and project information. If you're interested in a one-day volunteer opportunity, consider the D.C. Jewish Community Center's December 25th Community Service Project. More than 60 philanthropic events are planned, including Behrend Builders overseeing a paint-only day at various sites in the city. Call 202-518-9400, Ext. 300 or register online through Dec. 15 at www.dcjccdecember25.org. Registration fee, required for Christmas Day events only, is $16 for adults 18 and older; volunteers under 18 register free with an adult.