Staff and students volunteer to help families in need

In the past few years, volunteers from the University of Chicago have partnered with Rebuilding Together Metro Chicago to repair the homes of low-income, elderly and disabled Chicagoans.

Facilities Services staff members, now in their fourth year with the program, tackle large-scale home improvement projects to increase the livability of residents’ homes. Students and staff from the UChicago Laboratory Schools and staff of the Office of Civic Engagement joined them on April 30 for the third year of National Rebuilding Day.

“National Rebuilding Day is a special opportunity for us to come together as a University community to address some of the real challenges faced by many Chicagoans,” said Hannah Evans, the Laboratory Schools’ service learning coordinator. “Lab students learn about issues such as affordable housing, unemployment, and health and safety, and are empowered to seek solutions that will have a lasting impact on our city.”

This year, UChicago volunteers chose to help the Ramirez household in south suburban Blue Island. The Ramirez family had for years struggled with a lack of accessibility, comfort and sometimes such basic necessities as water.

“The pipes in the kitchen would freeze, so we’d get water from the bathroom and bring it in here to do our dishes,” said Elyana Ramirez, who lives in the two-bedroom home with her parents and 8-year-old son, Diego. “It was hard.”

A wide variety of home repairs was planned by the volunteers with a focus on upgrading the house to more easily accommodate Diego and his grandfather Rogelio, who rely on wheelchairs to get around. The family’s home, in which they’ve lived for 28 years, has never been updated for Diego and Rogelio.

A high fever at age 5 months left Diego with congenital neurological impairment. He lacks neck control and is unable to walk or talk. He never cries out, so Elyana has learned over the years to watch for other signs, sometimes a tear, to understand when Diego is feeling pain.

While learning to cope with her son’s disability, Elyana moved back in with her parents and shortly thereafter, during a liver and kidney transplant operation, Rogelio suffered a stroke that affected the right side of his body. He also has battled diabetes, endured brain surgery and recently was hospitalized for hip surgery.

A lack of handrails, clutter, and a mix of carpet and other flooring limited the family’s movement, requiring Elyana to lift or lower her father or son in their wheelchairs multiple times to travel from one room to another. A foyer with a sunken floor made entering the home a challenge, Elyana said.

Frozen pipes, inaccessible entryways, uneven floors, leaky windows and doors would soon be a memory for the Ramirez family.

“We are so excited. There’s a lot that needs to be done,” Elyana said in March when Facilities Services’ skilled trades employees visited the family. “Seeing them here…it’s like a dream. It doesn’t feel real.”

Both Elyana and her mother, Alma, who only speaks Spanish, became emotional when speaking of their challenges and the difference the volunteers are making in their lives. The loving family does not dwell on their setbacks, and they are overjoyed to have a more comfortable place to live.

William Towns, assistant vice president of neighborhood initiatives in the Office of Civic Engagement, said the volunteers benefit as much as the families receiving the free services. “I believe the benefit is mutual in the work that we do. Being able to see the families and the people receiving the help and the joy they get, it’s well worth it.”

With such significant structural and accessibility work going on, Elyana said one small item would make a big difference.

“The doorbell. It’s not a priority, but it’d be really nice,” she said. “Especially because we want everyone to come over and see all the changes.”