Paul's Note

I spent some time volunteering with an organization called Community Home Repair Projects of Arizona, better known as CHRPA.

CHIRPA provides homeowners who are usually disabled or on fixed incomes with emergency and necessary home repair. The group was started by Mennonites in 1982 and quickly grew because of both the need in our community and the number of community members willing to give their services.

They receive referrals from school wellness centers, social service organizations, utility companies and government agencies, as well as friends and neighbors of someone who may need a helping hand. They’ve kept the application process simple and they’ve been able to keep their waiting list short.

They’ve received numerous recognitions from organizations like HUD, Arizona Housing Authority Directors Association, the City of Tucson, Pima County and the Human Relations Commission of Tucson. In May, they received a Community Partnership Award from the Pima Area Labor Federation.

CHRPA gets its funding from both local government and private sources. They get $112,000 in grants from Community Development Block Grants as well as $85,000 in general fund money from the city. That $58,000 went to 114 smaller scale jobs, including heating and cooling issues and emergency repairs. This is in addition to money from private sources like the Zuckerman Foundation and Southwest Gas.

The money is critical, and they are able to stretch it because a substantial amount of the work they do is through volunteers. A lot of the work they do is emergency repairs for heating and cooling and roofs. These repairs are usually a temporary fix for people to get the through the summer or winter depending on the time of year. I saw this first hand last month.

I spent a morning one day with a CHRPA volunteer, Dustin Schaber. We repaired swamp coolers for people who cannot afford new air conditioners. These were folks, some sick and some elderly, that relied on swamp cooling to stay safe during the summer. Moreover, these individuals had paid a contractor for previous repairs but the repairs had failed within a few weeks, sometimes a few days. It infuriated me because a contractor worth his salt should come back and fix it. Unfortunately, not everyone has pride in their work.

Even though it was a hot day, it felt good to get out on some roofs and help people in our community. You can volunteer too. CHRPA’s current crew of volunteers ranges from 18-84 and they are willing to take people ranging from unskilled to experienced craftsmen. You can call them at 745-2055 and arrange for a meeting.

You can also donate. They accept donations and can always use AC wall units, cooler pumps and motors or cooler housings, tubing, roofing mud and obviously fasteners and screws. You can also write them a check. Any donation to them is tax deductible.

If you want to know a little more about what CHRPA volunteers see in our community every day and how they help, here is a story from CHRPA’s Claire Swinford:

By one o’clock I had finished my assigned jobs for the day and called the office for additional work. It had been one of those days. Everywhere I went, I was staring at potential disaster. A water heater that had flamed out, a mis-wired cooler blowing breakers, an outlet burned up due to a loose connection. Each of these could have been disastrous, but each of them was readily repairable.

Then the next job came through. The client reported a toilet that wouldn’t flush well and a cooler that needed work. She also mentioned in passing that she was receiving an electric shock when she touched the metal siding on her mobile home. Upon arriving I dug a little deeper into the electrical story and Corine told me she had grabbed her door handle during a heavy rain and received a shock so severe that she could not release her hand from the handle and that she had blackened skin on her hand afterwards. To her mind, it was scary in the moment, but not nearly as important as getting her cooler repaired.

To my mind, it was something else. Training gives a lot of knowledge, experience gives a lot of insight, but electrocution is an issue that I understand on an entirely different level. You see, I have a pacemaker installed to mitigate the damage to my heart caused by a severe electric shock I received many years ago. The locking of muscles that happens when voltage overrides human nerve responses? I’ve experienced that first hand—I know exactly how that feels. I also know that, physiologically, when electric shock locks muscles, a person is mere moments from death; the heart is a muscle. I live every day knowing how lucky I am to be alive, and the odds I beat in being so. This issue may have been incidental to the client, but to me it was urgent—quite literally a matter of life and death.

I grabbed my multimeter and got to work. Checking between the trailer siding and the earth I found nothing. I borrowed Corine’s garden hose, soaked the ground and splashed water on the side of the trailer. Electrical troubleshooting usually doesn’t involve water, but I needed to replicate the conditions that led to her shock. I very carefully checked again, and there it was, 119 volts of potential between the siding and the dirt yard. This was a lethal situation to be sure. I shut down power at the breakers, and turned them back on one by one, testing each time, until I found the specific circuit causing the problem. I shut that one down and disconnected the wire from the breaker, rendering the home safe for the evening rainstorm.

The next day we went back to troubleshoot that circuit and repair it. Rob and I spent the morning removing pieces of siding from the outside of the trailer and visually tracing the circuit. It’s a lot of work to disassemble and reassemble walls, but sometimes you must get creative to see that which is buried in the wall out of sight. Our first discovery was a section of wire that had burned up in a short circuit. Fixing that was essential, but didn’t solve the issue. Next, we found an outlet box buried in the wall with bare wires hanging out; again, a necessary repair, but not the solution. Finally, we discovered the culprit—a wire with the insulation chewed off by packrats. We repaired that with new wire and the voltage on the trailer wall went away and the home was again safe.

Electrical troubleshooting is like that. You have to find ways to see the invisible, and once you start looking, you have no idea where it will go. You follow it through because electricity is a fickle beast that can bring light and convenience to your world, but will kill you in an instant if given the opportunity.  Corine could now enjoy the former, because our work had eliminated the opportunity for the latter.

The cooler she was concerned about? That’s been installed. So has the toilet. Both are important to maintaining a safe, livable home, and both can be used now without the fear of electrocution. Everything we do at CHRPA is vital—everything we do makes a difference. But it’s not every day that we are called to address immediate life-and-death issues. On the occasions when we do, it always touches me just how rare and valuable this organization is, and just how lucky I am to be doing this work for CHRPA and the community that we serve.