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
By: Joan Gilmore
For a long time, the folks at Rebuilding Together OKC have concentrated on helping folks who have houses that need fixing. They’re going to keep on doing home repairs and safety modifications for seniors in the Oklahoma City area but they need more funding so they can fix up more homes.
Thus, Rebuilding Together (also known as RTOKC) will host its inaugural Barn Raising Bash at 6 p.m. June 17 at the historic Harn Homestead, 1721 N. Lincoln Blvd.
No, they will not be “bashing” the house. They will be enjoying a cash bar and silent auction on the homestead grounds as Kyle Dillingham provides musical entertainment. A dinner sponsored by Earl’s Rib Palace will follow.
Proceeds will go toward the purchase of supplies for home repairs and safety modifications of homes the owners can’t do themselves or pay for.
The Barn Raising Bash is chaired by Rebecca Denny and Kym Freeman Mason.
Highlight of the evening will be the presentation of the Clyde Riggs Volunteer of the Year Award to Clay Cockrill. A member of the RTOKC board since 2010, Cockrill and his family are involved in various organizations throughout the city. He considers Rebuilding Together as the shining star of his civic volunteerism.
RTOKC’s mission is to bring together volunteers and communities to improve the homes and lives of low-income, elderly homeowners in the metro area.
Tyler Outdoor Advertising, Rebuilding Together OKC, and Drabek & Hill Inc. give away a Heat and Air Unit to deserving homeowner and mother, Betty Jo Hawkins-Emery
The walls of Betty’s home are filled with pictures, pictures of children proudly displayed. She lives in the home she grew up in with nine brother and sisters. After her parents became unable to take care of the home, Betty purchased it from them; she wanted to keep it in the family. “I was used to seeing our home filled with children, it just wasn’t happy without the sounds of kids filling every room.” Betty and her late husband, Theodore Emery, fostered 17 children; a picture of each of them still remains in the living room. Theodore and Betty strongly valued keeping sibling groups together and insisted on taking in all the siblings of a family. Over the years, they fostered the children of 10 families. Many of the children aged out of foster care in their home, while some were reunited with their families. Brandon, “Theodore’s favorite” as Betty says, will call Betty’s home his home forever. After Theodore passed, Betty adopted Brandon. Brandon is a happy 7 years old boy who has a Down Syndrome. “I expect him to go to college and not be paid substandard wage and have a family,” says Betty. Brandon makes sure that Brandon has the opportunity to work with occupational therapists and speech pathologists. Brandon attends an integrated day care with special needs children and typically developing children. “Brandon learns from the other children and has fun,” Betty says. Betty has always had a heart for children. She believes every child deserves a parent. Most of our time with Betty was spent talking about her individual foster children and Brandon. Betty finally said, “I guess you want to hear about me, too!” and laughed.
Betty is an Army Veteran. She retired in 2012, after 38 years of service. She served many roles in the Army, as she says she started at the bottom and worked her way up. Through training in the Army, Betty became a Licensed Practical Nurse. She served time as a surgical nurse, floor nurse, and later, became a school nurse at an alternative school Seeworth Academy. Betty says she still sees her students from Seeworth around town and she is proud of them and how far they’ve come.
Betty’s home is 89 years old. She says it has remained in good shape until recent years due to earthquakes and the weathering of time. The floor has started to crack and buckle, the ceiling has started to sag. On the coldest day of winter, Betty’s heat stopped working. She called a local company who discovered that Betty’s home had gas leaks and was not energy efficient. The company recommended she call Rebuilding Together OKC. The medical bills that followed her husband’s death and caring for the needs of a 7 year old have left Betty financially unable to repairs her heating system or make other home repairs.
Rebuilding Together OKC is working with Betty to make other home repairs and safety modifications. Thanks to Tyler Outdoor Advertising, the heat system courtesy of Drabek & Hill, and repairs made by community companies and volunteers, Betty and Brandon are safe, warm and dry in their home.
Betty is currently in school, pursuing a second degree in Healthcare Administration. Betty wants to better educate herself so she can provide for Brandon. Betty says her purpose from God at this time to take care of Brandon to the best of her ability. Betty hopes to work in a skilled nursing facility and help people get back home. Betty says, “People spend a lifetime in their homes, working to pay for it. A nursing home is not a place to die. People want to be at home so they can comfortably meet Jesus asleep in their beds.” We could not agree more with Betty. Rebuilding Together OKC works to make sure our homeowners can “age in place”.
Thank you to Tyler Outdoor Advertising and Drabek & Hill Inc, for making this possible for Betty and Brandon.
Together we can rebuild lives and neighborhoods.
12th ANNUAL CONSTRUCTION DERBY
OCTOBER 4th, 2015
AT the NO MOTOR SPEEDWAY!
(NW 5TH between WALKER & SHARTEL)
The Construction Derby is a race of non-motorized vehicles that occurs annually in the fall on NW 5th Street between Walker and Shartel in downtown Oklahoma City. It is an afternoon event with children’s activities, car show, racing, and tailgating all happening simultaneously. The proceeds from the race benefit Rebuilding Together OKC.
Two classes will compete – professional and amateur – racing vehicles constructed of materials commonly used to make home modifications and repairs for our homeowners. The winning team from each class will receive a grand prize. Unique trophies will also be given in 6 categories in each class: Best Use of Accessories and in Keeping with the RT Mission, Team Spirit, Best Dressed Pit Crew, Best Entry Name, Turtle, and Most Creative.
Rebuilding Together OKC has completed a competitive application process and has been selected, as one of nine affiliates, to participate in 2014 Communities of Promise Program. The Communities of Promise Program is dedicated to providing technical assistance and coaching to support affiliates in improving organizational health, performance and sustainability.
“We are thrilled to welcome these nine affiliates into this year’s program,” said Jessica Oh, Rebuilding Together’s Senior Director of Affiliate Services, Western Regions and Communities of Promise program leader. “These affiliates are ready to take their work to the next level, and our team is excited to provide the training and tools necessary to help them get there.”
Starting with a successful pilot year in 2011, 24 affiliates have participated in the Communities of Promise program so far. The program’s coaching and resources will focus on board governance, development, fundraising, communications and marketing, and other areas based on each affiliate’s individual goals. This year’s program will run 12 months and conclude in March 2015.
Rebuilding Together OKC board members and staff are thrilled to have the opportunity to participate in 2014 Communities of Promise. We will keep you, our donors and volunteers, updated on our progress!
WASHINGTON, D.C. – March 17, 2014
Every pair of hands can make a difference. Rebuilding Together affiliates repair and rebuild homes for America’s low-income homeowners one home at a time, 10,000 times a year. Lend a hand. Or two: https://www.rebuildingtogetherokc.org/volunteer/
Thank you to our media partner Scripps Network Interactive, and their HGTV and DIY Network channels, for commissioning this video on our behalf and for their ongoing support of our mission. Some footage taken in Oklahoma City with the Rebuilding Together OKC affiliate.