Good Neighbor James Pacheco: Rebuilding Community

“The work we do can transform a neighborhood. Suddenly, the worst looking house on the block turns into the best looking house on the block.”

For more than a decade, James Pacheco has helped Christmas come early for low-income, elderly, and disabled residents in northern California’s Bay Area.

Pacheco, a sales associate at Prudential California Realty in Castro Valley, is the founder and president of Christmas in April, Castro Valley Area Inc. The group repairs and renovates both nonprofit facilities and residences whose owners are physically or financially unable to do the work themselves. Pacheco’s Castro Valley group is the local chapter of a national charity formerly known as Christmas in April but recently renamed Rebuilding Together.

“A lot of the people we help say to themselves that as long as the roof doesn’t fall in, they’re OK,” Pacheco says. Some can barely afford to buy food or medicine, much less pay for repairs.

Christmas in April, Castro Valley serves seven Bay Area cities, bringing together 600 to 700 skilled and unskilled volunteers for an annual workday on the last Saturday in April. The volunteers do everything from cleaning and painting to fixing roofs and windows to upgrading plumbing and electrical.

In 10 years the group has repaired more than 150 homes. In 2004 Pacheco plans to renovate 18 to 20 homes.

Although the actual renovation and repair work takes place on one day each year, coordinating the logistics requires months of planning. As president, Pacheco recruits the volunteers, identifies beneficiaries, and solicits donations—both money and materials. He estimates that it costs between $50,000 and $60,000 a year to run the program, not including materials. The program is operated entirely by volunteers, with no paid staff.

“When it’s well orchestrated, it makes a beautiful song,” says Pacheco. “We get a tremendous amount of work done in one day.”

Carol Raugust, a 2003 recipient from Hayward, Calif., says the work of Pacheco and his volunteers has enabled her to enjoy life more. Volunteers removed debris from her backyard to allow her to garden and move freely in her wheelchair, made her kitchen more wheelchair-accessible, painted her house, and fixed a fence to keep her dog in. She says that Pacheco was very knowledgeable in identifying what needed to be repaired. About 50 volunteers worked on her home. “I had no idea that it would be as big a project as it was,” she says.

The organization identifies potential beneficiaries through several sources, including referrals from social services and government programs, as well as letters from residents seeking assistance for themselves or someone they know.

Sometimes, Pacheco says, the people who need help the most have the hardest time asking for it. “They have a strong work ethic; they’ve been through the Depression, war—they won’t ask for help.” He sometimes makes three or four personal visits before a homeowner agrees to bring in one of Pacheco’s teams.

The organization is about more than fixing up buildings, Pacheco says. It’s about rebuilding a sense of community. “We’re all so busy getting from point A to point B that we don’t look to see what’s going on around us,” Pacheco says. But many times when neighbors see Christmas in April volunteers working on a home, they wander over to lend a hand.

From there, it’s likely that the relationship will continue, he says. “If you’re bold enough to volunteer,” he says, “then you’ll be bold enough to knock on the person’s door again in the future and see how your neighbor is doing.”

What does Pacheco get from spending so much effort on charity work? Tears, hugs, thank-yous—and the personal satisfaction of helping others in need.

“I was very grateful just to have someone taking that kind of interest in me,” says Raugust. The volunteers were so warm, kind, and helpful that they felt like “big brothers or teddy bears come to life.”

How to contact James Pacheco

James Pacheco
Windermere Properties of the East Bay
4309 Hacienda Dr., Suite 150
Pleasanton, CA 94588

Christmas in April
18975 Edwin Markham Dr.
Castro Valley, CA 94552