Betty Hawkins-Emery, 62, fights sleep as her 8-year-old son with special needs, Brandon, huddles beneath a pile of blankets. Betty lets Brandon rest, but she must deprive herself of sleep to keep a watchful eye over the space heater, the only source of warmth in her 89-year-old home.
The previous day, Betty smelled the subtle scent of gas and called in the problem, only to have the gas, her home’s main heat source, shut off completely. This put a stop to gas seeping through the pipes’ pores and prevented a possible explosion that seemed likely given the ancient piping. Yet, Betty simply couldn’t afford the hefty price that came with repairing her heating system and returning warmth to her home.
After Betty’s husband passed away, her two-income household became a one-income household, strained further by an old Army injury; during the U.S. Invasion of Panama, Betty’s sergeant pulled her out of their battered Gama Goat vehicle, teetering on the edge of a cliff. Although Betty survived the near-death experience, the force of being pulled out so quickly permanently damaged her back and knee, rendering her unable to continue working.
“I knew how to take care of myself, but I didn’t know how to live in poverty,” Betty says.
Since Betty couldn’t pay the large sum, the plumber referred her instead to Rebuilding Together OKC, a nonprofit organization that steps in to repair homes of the low-income elderly in Oklahoma City.
The nonprofit came out to Betty’s home, where she and her nine siblings grew up over the past fifty years. Since its construction in 1925, the four-bedroom home sustained a wide extent of damage caused by age and weather. Rebuilding Together OKC came in to make assessments and start returning Betty’s home to livable conditions. This way, Betty could stay and raise Brandon in the family house she bought from her mother.
“It’s like this was my place,” Betty says. “This was my community, and I just didn’t see nobody else having this house but us.”
Rebuilding Together OKC discovered a long list of unsafe conditions, leading them to renovate the old hardwood floors, create shelf space in the pantry and convert Betty’s bathtub into an ADA compliant walk-in shower.
“We don’t just come in and do repair to beautify,” says Ashleigh Gibson, Rebuilding Together OKC development director. “We want to keep them safe, warm and dry. We want to them to be able to stay in here as long as possible.”
Rebuilding Together OKC made this dream a reality for Betty as they do with other low-income elderly community members in Oklahoma City. For Betty, they flattened uneven floors, removed area rugs she could possibly trip over and transitioned the gas pipes to an electrical heating unit, with the help of Drabek & Hill.
For others, Rebuilding Together OKC may only need to install handrails on porches and stairways or bring in a wheelchair ramp for easy access. This nonprofit organization also brings volunteers in to make free repairs like raising toilet seats and repairing small electrical issues.
The extent of the repairs at Betty’s home has been a slow but steady process, and over the course of several years, Betty, Brandon and Rebuilding Together OKC have formed a close bond. As the repair process comes closer to its April finish date, Betty can’t help but wonder what life will look like without the constant stream of workers and staff members coming by to transform her life and her home.
“For us, we’re like family,” Gibson says. “We do 300 homes a year and every single one of the people we work with, they’re not just people, they’re your parents and grandparents and neighbors.”
Betty says some of the Rebuilding Together OKC partners and employees even stopped by her house one Christmas to spread a little joy. One couple brought Brandon his own tape measure and flashlight so next time the workers came by to make repairs, Brandon could mimic their movements and become part of the rebuild team.
Aside from physical repairs, Rebuilding Together OKC also brings in partners that grant better living tips and tricks. Betty learned that by changing her walls’ color scheme to a brighter shade, she could rely solely on natural lighting during the day. The first time Betty scanned her electricity bill after switching color palettes, she says the price sharply decreased from more than $200 to only $82.
“You literally rebuilt my life,” Betty says to Gibson.
Betty also received lessons on decluttering and organizing her home. Rebuilding Together OKC brought in help so Betty could finally wade through her mother’s personal effects to make more room in their family home.
“They’re in your life, and they ask you what you expect, and it makes you feel like they really care about you,” Betty says. “And I think they really do care about you, because if they didn’t care about you, they wouldn’t tell you these little things you can do to improve your life.”
Now, with a more cost-efficient lifestyle, a decluttered space and a safer atmosphere, Betty can return to her life’s passion—fostering children. After adopting Brandon, Betty stopped fostering other children to focus on caring for him and providing a safe place for him to thrive. By the end of February, however, she will welcome a new teenage son to her home. Since Rebuilding Together OKC helped Betty clear out old odds and ends taking up space, her new son will even stay in his own room, and Brandon won’t have to share his personal space with his new sibling.
“It seems like when everything started going wrong, that’s when you guys stepped in,” Betty says to Gibson. “When I was so afraid, we didn’t have no heat, and the house was falling down around us, that’s when you guys came. You made it possible for us to live and still stay in this house. And maybe we’ll be here another 50 years.”
By Tegan Burkhard
Photos By Emily Brashier