News & Events

Volunteers descend on Columbia home for days of repairs

By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun

6:05 p.m. EDT, May 2, 2013

The first troops showed up on a Saturday morning at the four-bedroom house in Columbia heavily armed: saws, hammers, crowbars, drills.

They’ve returned three times since and are expected back again next week in hopes of making repairs upstairs and down, inside and out.

The noise these volunteers made was … well, homeowner Ryan Condillac first called it “manageable.”

Then he thought a moment and said, “I want to use another adjective: awesome.”

The hammering, sanding and whining of electric saws was, in the end, the sound of charitable effort. Condillac, who applied to the nonprofit Rebuilding Together Howard County for help, has worked with crews of 15 to 20 volunteers, some teenagers, some building-trade professionals and engineers.

“I’m just extremely grateful and content” with the work the group has done, said Condillac, 38, sitting in his living room with his wife, Elaine, and their 2-year-old son, Gabriel, and 8-month-old daughter, Emma. “We were just blessed, absolutely.”

Things are looking up for Condillac after some difficult years. The veteran of the Army Reserve is working as a computer technician for a contractor for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in Montgomery County, getting his financial and literal house in order.

After struggling for years as the result of what Condillac called “bad decisions,” his family sold their 22-year-old computer repair business in Takoma Park in 2011. His personal finances suffered along with the business, he said.

“I had accrued quite a bit of debt,” said Condillac, who came to this country from India with his family as a boy in 1985.

While he was still single and living elsewhere, he bought the Columbia house in 2006 for $357,000 from his parents. For the first couple of years, he rented the place out — and it fell into disrepair. Gutters leaked, the outdoor decks rotted, sliding doors were not airtight, drywall was damaged by water leaking in from the roof, plumbing and electrical work was overdue.

A few years after he was married in 2007 and moved back to the house in Oakland Mills, he knew something had to be done. But it was too much for his budget.

He said his wife, who “has a nose for these types of things,” had heard about Rebuilding Together Howard County, which has been around since 1992 as one of 200 local affiliates of a national organization.

“We have to level our pride sometimes and ask for help,” he said.

Ann Heavner, the organization’s executive director, said the group brings together sponsors and some 850 volunteers to complete repairs for people in need. In the past 21 years, she said, the group has repaired more than 600 homes in the county at no charge to the homeowners.

She guesses the Condillacs would have paid contractors up to $20,000 for the repairs on their house.

This year, considering the cost of labor and materials, the organization will do about $280,000 worth of work on 26 houses using sponsorships that total $70,000. By using volunteers and arranging donations and discounts with suppliers, Heavner said the organization can return about $4 worth of labor and materials for every sponsorship dollar.

This year, the county government, as in years past, sponsored a house repair for $2,700.

Heavner said the Condillacs’ application was one of 26 chosen from 70 applications for help. She said their request was approved for a combination of reasons: need, the fact that it was a young family whose life was being affected by poor conditions of the house, and the fact that Condillac is a military veteran, which allowed the organization to apply for a $5,000 grant for aid to military families provided by Sears. That grant paid for a new stove, microwave oven and dishwasher.

Usually, volunteers complete most of the repairs on the houses with a frenzy of work on the last Saturday of April. Sometimes, the job is more complicated, and volunteers have to pay several visits.

They did for the Condillacs, showing up first on April 13, then three Saturdays after, with the work expected to be completed this coming Saturday. Elaine Condillac takes the children and stays at a friend’s house while Condillac stays home to pitch in with the volunteers.

Jim Bielefeld, one of three project directors on the job, said there was a lot of work to be done on the house to meet the organization’s basic standards of “warmer, safer, drier.” Still, he said he’s seen a lot worse during his 18 years as a volunteer with the Appalachian Services Project, an organization that works with Rebuilding Together Howard County.

Compared to some of the places he’s repaired in West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and southern Virginia, “this is a palace. A lot of folks are unemployed. They have health problems,” often associated with working in coal mines.

An electrical engineer who lives in Columbia, Bielefeld said the work in Appalachia has changed his perspective on “life’s real value — the value of family and community. Where we go, people don’t have much but they hang together. You find out you can live without a lot of things, but you can’t live without your family.”

Condillac said “it’s a calling” the volunteers seem to have. “I hope to raise children like that, and to do my part.”

For more information on Rebuilding Together Howard County, go to

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