St. Elizabeth’s volunteers help rebuild Coatesville homes

By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

UPPER UWCHLAN – Undertaking major household repair work happens every third Saturday of the month for this group of volunteers: 45 teens through seniors, including lunch workers, from St. Elizabeth Parish, Upper Uwchlan. On March 21 they weren’t working on one house, but three in the Coatesville area.

It’s all part of Good Works Inc., a highly successful ecumenical outreach program in southern Chester County.

Good Works is a Christian non-profit organization that helps low-income families make their homes warmer, safer and drier. The work might include roof repair, plumbing installation and repair, electrical rewiring and code compliance, heating installation and upgrades, insulation and drywall work, window and door repair.

“It’s a physical experience, a spiritual experience and an emotional experience. It’s making a tangible difference in other people’s lives and giving God’s love to those in need,” said John Irwin, who coordinates the Good Works program at St. Elizabeth. “It’s also fun. We have fun doing it.”

The homes that inspanidual church groups work on are pre-selected by Good Works, which also provides most of the necessary tools and materials. Generally speaking the inspanidual volunteer groups such as the St. Elizabeth team will work on a house once a month until the project is completed.

On this particular Saturday one of the three homes St. Elizabeth volunteers are working on was skipped because the resident had a medical emergency. Instead, that 15-member team worked on one of the Coatesville homes damaged by the recent string of arsons in the city. This particular house suffered mostly water, smoke and roof damage and needs rehabilitation before a mother and daughter can move back in.

Among other things, the volunteers will do roof repair, firewall reconstruction, insulation and ceiling repair and drywall work as well as clearing out truckloads of debris from the fire aftermath.

Good Works was founded in 1988 by Jim Ford, a member of Christ Community Church in West Chester, according to Patti Wilcox, the assistant director and herself a member of Dilworthtown Community Church.

It’s mostly Christian church groups that are involved, including Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopal, Catholic and non-denominational, but also college groups from West Chester and Immaculata universities.

“We are all serving the Lord in this ministry,” Wilcox said.

In 2008, 1,564 families were assisted and work was completed in 50 homes. This took the effort of 1,830 volunteers and 36,000 volunteer hours.

Other Catholic parishes engaged in Good Works include St. Agnes in West Chester, St. Peter in West Brandywine and St. Joseph in Downingtown, according to Wilcox.

As a matter of fact, it was the aptly-named St. Joseph Parish that introduced St. Elizabeth to the home repair project about three years ago, according to Irwin. At first St. Elizabeth parishioners buddied with the St. Joseph team until they were ready to take on projects of their own.

With the blessing of St. Elizabeth’s pastor, Msgr. Thomas M. Mullen, volunteers are recruited through a parish stewardship fair, according to Irwin.

Now the group’s work has grown to such a point that the members can work on three houses simultaneously, but again, just that one Saturday a month, so as not to be too much of a strain on their own family life.

Some volunteers bring years of experience in home repair craftsmanship to the projects; others are neophytes who are teamed up with the experienced volunteers to learn the ropes. In any case, every phase of the repair work is closely monitored for quality assurance and code standards.

Some volunteers are content to just do the simple tasks. For example, Mary Damian is quite happy to be a gofer or to paint or install molding or whatever is asked.

“I’ve learned so much from this, not physically but spiritually,” she said. “This work is at the foundation of our Catholic faith, and a lot of it is connecting with the families we help.”

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Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.