It used to rain inside Phoenix Miller’s house.
The leaks in her roof were so bad that they were turning her bathroom, which lacked ventilation, black with mold. She avoided hanging clothes in her bedroom closet because water would stream down the walls during storms and rot the wood. “I was just feeling unhealthy living here,” says the Spartanburg, S.C., resident.
Suffering from a long-term disability that limits her mobility and prevents her from working, Miller, 58, has little income and can’t afford to keep up with home repairs. Though the ramshackle, two-bedroom house was already in bad shape when she bought it in 2010 for $3,000 from an investor—it was a foreclosure that sat vacant for eight years—Miller was determined to become a home owner and do her best to improve the place.
But after doing what cleanup and repairs she could handle, Miller ran out of money. And in recent years, she has lived with major defects that made her feel uncomfortable and unsafe. Miller was on the brink of abandoning her home when, in June, she reached out to a local REALTOR® who answered her call for help—and started to help turn her life around.
To the Rescue
Christmas In Action-Spartanburg, a nonprofit founded by Keller Williams Realty agent Cindy Barrett and her husband, John, in 1996 to repair and rebuild homes for the poor, elderly, and disabled in Spartanburg, sent volunteers to Miller’s home. In one day, they replaced her roof, installed drywall, and fixed broken knobs and locks, among other items.
The simplest repair was the one she appreciates the most: a new knob on the outside of her front door where there used to be none. Before, she would prop the door open whenever she left the house. “I had no sense of security,” Miller says. “You could ride by and see the door was open, and I just had to live with it because I can’t afford to pay someone to fix these things.” Now, thanks to Barrett’s group, Miller’s home is a safe place for her 2-year-old granddaughter to visit. “I feel like basically this is my dream home now, and I can stay here. It’s not always easy to ask for help, and the volunteers helped me preserve my dignity.”
Now in its 20th year, CIA has partnered with such organizations as the United Way and secured local and national grants to fund repair projects on more than 800 homes in Spartanburg. The group’s typical client is a 62-year-old woman, usually widowed or never married, living on an annual income of $14,500, according to Amanda Mathis, executive director of CIA. People who live on such low earnings spend their money on electricity or food, not home repairs, she adds.
‘Love Your Neighbor’
Barrett works tirelessly to recruit volunteers by talking to local churches, community groups, and businesses. She’s driven by the old adage “love your neighbor as you love yourself,” which fueled her desire to start CIA and provide hope for people who feel invisible. “When you’re elderly and you don’t have money, you don’t have a great voice,” Barrett says. “People don’t really care, and they look past you. We give them a voice. It’s a privilege for us to be able to come into their homes and help them.”
Nineteen percent of Spartanburg residents live below the poverty line, says Mathis, who started as a CIA volunteer before assuming her full-time leadership role last year. Jobs in the textile industry, which was once a major local employer, disappeared years ago when factories closed, she says. That has left so many people in need. “We all live in our own personal bubble, and you look at these houses and think, ‘That looks pretty bad,’” she says. “But you don’t think about who’s living there.”
CIA’s mission reflects the Barretts’ desire to build community and form bonds based on making the world a better place. “We are small but mighty. We get things done,” Mathis says. “Cindy challenges us to think differently,” She’s the one in the room who will play devil’s advocate to make you think outside the box about how to help people.”
Watching Miracles Happen
CIA’s mission is aided by a steady stream of volunteer workers from across the country. Kaitlin O’Brien, came for a year with AmeriCorps VISTA in 2011 and helped CIA manage a grant to fund trips for college students to come and work on homes. Nearly 70 students representing 20 states and 30 schools came during academic breaks to work on four homes. O’Brien recalls building a ramp for a home owner who relied on a wheelchair after a stroke. His brother previously had to carry him in and out of his home.
“To see this man be able to get out into his yard and throw around a football with his 9-year-old son was amazing,” she says. “CIA helps people stay independent in their own homes—and we all know in our hearts where home is. There is nobody else out there quite like Cindy. She’ll go above and beyond for anybody, and she makes you feel right at home.”
Now that CIA has the support of a full-time employee, Barrett is stepping back to let new blood take over. But when she thinks about her priorities, helping people is always at the top of the list. “There’s always a real challenge for real estate professionals to balance time, but God always comes first, and then my family, and then my job. But Christmas in Action is my ministry—it’s what I do.”