Story of The Week 3/21/2017

Midwestern Warmth

By Heidi Underbakke, Homer Repair and Weatherization Assistant at COVER Home Repair

Recently a senior couple, Gus and Colleen, had contacted COVER to assist with a roof repair. My supervisor deemed this project unsuitable for our capacity. He did ask to look around the home to see if there were any other projects we could assist with. A few questions about their energy bills, and a quick look around the interior and basement, and they were on our weatherization list.

I met Gus in November, when I arrived with a supervisor and four volunteers to weatherize their home. We planned to seal up cracks and a bulkhead door and lay a vapor barrier in the basement, install window kits on all the windows, and switch out their inefficient light bulbs with LED bulbs. Colleen was at work all day, but I spent a lot of time in the same room that Gus was in and had a chance to chat with him and get to know him better. He was feeling under the weather, and also had some mobility issues and a lot of memory problems, the latter of which seemed to bother him the most.

Once we started talking about where we were from and how we ended up in the Upper Valley, we quickly discovered that we had both eaten at the Canteen in Ottumwa, Iowa. I'm from Iowa and have a good friend who lives in Ottumwa, a pretty small town south of Des Moines. The Canteen is the local burger-joint/hangout. Gus had lived in Ottumwa for a few years with his family. Discovering this small connection was such a wonderful surprise for both of us, and as I installed 8 window kits, Gus and I shared memories of Iowa and tales of other life experiences. We reveled in finding someone else who appreciates corny jokes and bad puns. Gus cooked a classic goulash for our crew for lunch. He was very proud of this very midwestern dish, and clearly enjoyed being able to provide for us while we were serving him.

Throughout the day, I noticed him struggling less with his memory and focusing less on his ailments. This is a common theme with the homeowners that I work with every week. So many of them are disabled, unemployed, and/or facing other perils that really limit and consume their lives. Having a chance to speak with these people and talk with them about other subjects--asking them about who they are--has such a visible positive impact. It also is a fringe benefit for me; I find providing the service of conversation quite fulfilling. The stories I hear and the personal connections I make, where total strangers are sharing details about our lives, have really helped me find a sense of place  in my role as an Americorps Member, as a resident in my community, and (not to be to philosophical) in my life and story.

Colleen and I stayed in contact throughout the day. She had been nervous about not being able to help manage the projects, so I kept her updated with tasks we completed and questions we had and Gus and I kept a list of things to talk with her about. She arrived home just before we headed out. I can imagine that arriving home after a bunch of strangers had been traipsing around your home all day would be nerve-wracking, but she was gracious and grateful for our work. Gus and I had a warm goodbye, and he lamented not living closer so we could grill out together occasionally. I think we both felt growth that day through the connection we made.

Of course, the weatherization tasks we completed did return a great improvement when we finalized the blower door test. Colleen turned off their furnace for the first time since the cold weather arrived because it was actually reaching and maintaining comfortable temperatures. I can imagine that they've noticed a lot of savings and a noticeable change in comfort in the weeks since.

It was a pretty good day.

VHCB AmeriCorps is a program of the
Vermont Housing & Conservation Board.

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