For years, a pale blue craftsman-style house in need of some tender, loving care stood quietly hidden away behind a curtain of overgrowth in this Boston suburb. Then John Kinney arrived.
When a shower of sparks rained down from the light in her kitchen ceiling in early August, blowing out electricity on the first floor, a neighbor referred owner Gloria Scott to Mr. Kinney, an electrician.
It was a wiring problem, he figured – not uncommon in an older house like hers. He got the lights back on, and waived the cost of his quick fix.
Mr. Kinney could have left it at that, knowing he had helped out someone with an immediate problem. But he couldn’t stop thinking about what he’d seen: a home in need of many repairs to meet minimal safety standards.
Maintenance of the home Ms. Scott inherited from her parents had gotten away from the retired executive assistant over the past 10 years.
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“She had holes in the ceiling … extensive plumbing damage and electrical [issues],” Mr. Kinney says. “I knew it was tough. So that day I told her, ‘Hey, I live five minutes away. If you need any help, just call me. I’ll be in here.’”
He adds matter-of-factly, “I knew she wasn’t going to call me. So I just had to come back.”
With a network of skilled colleagues, Mr. Kinney realized he was perfectly positioned to help. He returned and told her that he could triage the worst of the problems at no cost to her.
“I kept saying, ‘Are you sure? Are you sure?’” Ms. Scott says.
Mr. Kinney was quite sure.
A network kicks into gear
Work began with a small, close group of volunteers, and Mr. Kinney recorded their progress with his smartphone. When he posted the video online, he was encouraged by the positive response it drew. Hoping to find donors to help with the few thousand dollars he thought would be necessary for materials, Mr. Kinney started an online fundraiser with the tag line “Nice old lady needs help,” along with a Gloria’s Gladiators Facebook group.
To his surprise, these efforts took off: The fundraiser received more than $111,000, and more than 16,000 people joined the Gladiators group.
“What started off as a project to just repair a few holes in Gloria’s kitchen ceiling has spiraled into a movement where she’s basically getting her whole house rebuilt,” says Mr. Kinney, who found himself coordinating on a massive scale.
“My phone rings nonstop, night and day,” he says. Volunteers began bringing trays of food each day, and several local companies donated time and resources to the renovation.
“People just kept showing up,” Ms. Scott says, sometimes as many as 20 volunteers a day. But, she adds, “John was very good at shielding me.”
For Ms. Scott, who values her privacy, the sudden influx of attention took getting used to. But she says she realizes that the volunteers also derive a sense of purpose by following Mr. Kinney’s example.
“I don’t know how I was blessed with John being the person that came to my rescue,” she says. “Somebody was watching over me to connect me. … And I will always be indebted to him for what he started.”
Now, only a few months into the project, the Gladiators have transformed the two-story house. The battered roof, which once allowed animals easy access to the attic, is decked and shingled. Plumbing that spewed hot water has been replaced. Fresh drywall has been installed in the kitchen and bathroom, and new insulation fortifies the interior against the Northeastern winter. The backyard is refreshed with bright green sod and the beginnings of a new patio, along with a shored-up septic access cover. And out front, with the overgrown bushes cleared, the blue house now proudly shows its face to the world.
“It’s pretty cool,” says the neighbor, Karen Spinosa, who recommended Mr. Kinney’s services to Ms. Scott. “You get up in the morning, you open your blinds, and it’s like turning on the television to watch HGTV, you know? Let’s see what’s going on today.”
One good deed seeds many more
At the house, Ms. Scott sits in a rocking chair on her front path greeting visitors who arrive steadily throughout the day. Her chihuahua, Choo Choo, darts inquisitively in and out of the open front door.
“Everybody knows they have to say ‘good morning’ to Choo Choo,” she says fondly. “And they have to say ‘good night,’ too.” The volunteers are pleased to oblige, and then move purposefully on to their tasks.
In fact, progress is faster than on a regular job site, says Mr. Kinney, attributing it to the enthusiasm of those donating their time.
Rick Cailouette, a contractor volunteer, agrees: “It’s been very interesting to see how many people really care, and have put themselves out there to come and help and volunteer. It’s just awesome, you know? It’s a good thing.”
The project energy is spreading beyond Woburn, too. On the Gloria’s Gladiators Facebook page, members post pictures of other projects they’ve volunteered on, or request help for their own restoration projects.
“We see other chapters popping up around the country now, and it’s just been incredible to witness,” says Mr. Kinney. And he believes anyone can follow his footsteps, whether the kind deed is big or small. “All I did was get the ball rolling and call attention to something, and anybody can do that.”
Once Ms. Scott’s house is completed, Mr. Kinney hopes to continue with similar projects. “We’re trying to find the right avenue to further the word,” he says. “At this point, it’s gotten bigger than myself. The goal is just to keep the kindness spreading.”
While there are nonprofit organizations that offer house repairs for older adults, coordinated community support networks play a key role in helping people remain in their homes – even if the idea of needing assistance is uncomfortable or awkward, says Laura Ryser, a research manager at the rural and small town studies program at the University of Northern British Columbia.
“It’s all about changing the community dialogue,” says Ms. Ryser, who studies informal support networks for older adults. “It really takes a very special coordinator and even special leadership in a community to make it OK to talk about [support systems].”
Fostering intergenerational contact and encouraging early conversations about aging is important in that process, Ms. Ryser says. More importantly, she adds, it’s essential to remember that the internet is not accessible to many older adults, so purposeful outreach with analog contact lists of trusted community members and organizations who can help out is important.
“It’s really about just getting everyone to [understand] that it’s OK to just support people aging in their community,” she says. “And if people accept help, it doesn’t devalue their purpose or their sense of worth at all.”
For Kinney, it’s actions that matter.
A good neighbor, he says, is “observant, and is going to recognize when somebody needs help and acts on it.
“You know, it doesn’t take much. Just go in, and take the initiative.”