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Gimme Shelter: Yachad's Blog

A Mensch with a Wrench: A Reflection

Matthew Flyer, Yachad’s Construction Manager, reflects on his experience as a Yachad volunteer-turned staff member.

By Matthew Flyer, Construction Manager

Today I want to talk about my transition from the corporate world to what I refer to as the real world.  I spent the past 35 years working for large, multi-national corporations in various positions, first as an engineer and finally in the management ranks.  While I enjoyed my time, I look back on how progress was measured – productivity, efficiency, return on investment, shareholder value and all those good things you normally think of when you think of corporations. 

When I stopped working a few years ago, I felt it was time to try something different.  I felt if I spent my career being tough and bottom line driven; it was time to start being nice and compassionate.  I have always admired individuals with careers in the service professions.  My mother was a nurse, my wife and sister-in-law educators, and they always seemed fulfilled in their mission.  I was looking for some of that passion.  

I dabbled in a few projects and fully expected to just volunteer here and there but then ended up with an organization called YACHAD – Hebrew for together.   

What began as volunteering to paint, build ramps and pull out carpeting a weekend or two a month, evolved into being a member of their board and ultimately a position as Construction Manager, or as my wife like to refer to me – “a mensch with a wrench.”   

I haven’t totally disavowed all my corporate skills.  In helping the organization grow, they’ve enabled me in areas such as supporting new grants, new programs and with organizational development. Like a corporation, missions keep changing and there is always a need to follow the money. However, my way of measuring progress no longer has corporate overtones, rather it’s measured by smiles and hugs.   

In talking about my transition, I want to touch on three aspects – the organization, the work and its impact, and what is has meant for me.  

What led me to YACHAD was their mission and how they focus on it. 

For generations of white American families, homeownership has been a fundamental means of accumulating wealth… serving as an asset against which they can borrow for education or other purposes.  But others have been shut out of programs that promoted homeownership financial well-being.  

This missed opportunity to amass wealth that white Americans took for granted is evident to this day with a black-white wealth gap and an even worse gap in health, living conditions, and educational opportunities. 

I know this is true because I now see it every day.  Less than 20 minutes away from where we are, here, in our nation’s capital, poor families are living in overcrowded houses with roofs that leak into bedrooms and onto dining room tables, through lighting fixtures and through drywall. Electricity comes from one extension cord snaked through the house. 

Open stoves are often the only source of heat during the winter, and residents have to fill up buckets of water just to flush their toilets. Again, I’m talking about Washington, D.C., not some underdeveloped country thousands of miles from here. 

For those who live in these conditions every day, often for many years, this is not just a “social problem,” it’s a personal crisis.  

Yachad’s mission is to help bridge this gap by assisting homeowners to stay in their homes and build on what it means for their personal situations. 

As the Construction Manager at Yachad, I, along with hundreds of dedicated volunteers, provide direct services to low-income families who are living in overcrowded, dangerous, and substandard housing. 

At Yachad, while we use many skilled tradespeople, we rely on skilled and unskilled volunteers to work alongside these families to repair untenable living conditions. Most of our clients are one roof leak, one electrical or plumbing failure away from being homeless. And, even as they hang valiantly on to a dwelling that’s crumbling around them, their existence isn’t even close to what we in this room would consider normal and nurturing. 

These families are often providing housing to their children and grandchildren. The aging and deteriorating housing stock they live in is the last line of “affordable” housing in the region. Losing these units would pose another serious threat to the dwindling supply of housing available to low and even moderate-income families. 

What is so different is the way I looked at social issues in the past versus now. Now I see it first-hand. It’s one thing to raise money for a cause, donate money or work behind the scenes.  But at YACHAD, I’ve approached it differently. I now see those in need every day.   

I am invited into their homes, I work with them hand-in-hand to help improve their lives.  I hear stories about their families and life. Seeing their smiles and offers of thanks creates a completely different perspective for me. 

Just this week, I visited a home of a single mother with two children with special needs.  She had some health concerns which caused her to lose her job, and she is now in jeopardy of losing her home.  Her home has major repair needs: the roof is leaking, there is no viable heating system, and mold is a serious health hazard.  These conditions are compromising her health condition, which then impacts her ability to hold down a job.  As I assessed her house to determine eligibility for our program, she was apologetic for her home’s disarray, when in fact I was amazed at what a great job she was doing trying to keep things in check.  She’s a perfect fit for our program.  There are no state or federal programs to provide assistance and without our help she’ll be forced to leave her home.   

One of the most interesting conversations I had was with a skeptical homeowner whose home we were working on.  When I showed up with a small group to do some repairs that our sub-contractors could not do, he very assertively asked, “Why are you doing this?”  It caught me by surprise and I fumbled a bit – it was the usual answers of tzedakah and Jewish values. None of us gave very convincing answers.   

He continued with his view on how he was raised, “it’s every man for himself and God will sort it all out in the end.” He admitted he hadn’t seen the best in people, especially at his current position as a prison guard.   

While he continued to look for the “strings-attached,” in the end, I think we won him over. 

On the other side of the spectrum I was working with a women well into her eighties, still the matriarch of a multi-generational family.  Her home was in desperate need of repairs.  When trying to set up our next visit she was overwhelmed with the help we were offering but a little embarrassed by her only request – could we not work on Tuesdays since that was her day to work in the church’s soup kitchen.   

This has been a common thread. I see many people in need, yet they themselves are always giving back. 

The impact of our program is far-reaching.  Two recipients come to mind.  Once their homes were stabilized, they were able to focus their efforts on self-improvement and being successful in the job market.  One went on to be employed by the DC government in a position that helps others in need.  The other went to school and has launched a career in social services.  Both exemplify the impact of a stable home environment. 

Even what may appear to be minor, impacts lives every day – things that we naively take for granted – a mother who can finally cook dinner for her family, another states “with her new floors she can now sleep lying down and without her nebulizer,” a new access ramp now allows a child to go outside – the stories can be endless. 

Beyond the homeowners there is also an impact on the volunteers, who develop such a sense of rapport and satisfaction.  We have a group of guys who started a project and now their monthly get-together is doing repair work on a new house; one woman celebrates her birthday by adopting a home and bringing her friends to do repairs; and a contractor donates a new kitchen every year – again, these stories can be endless. 

The combination of homeowners and volunteers truly embraces the meaning of YACHAD – together, a real sense of community. 

I find I have grown a bit in my transition:

  • Although my wife may disagree, I think I’ve become a little more patient and a bit less judgmental.  Standing on the outside, we are always quick to develop an opinion, but when you get intimately involved you learn quickly that there is a lot more to the story.
  • I’m surprised by how many people out there are trying to help.  From the families I work with, who they themselves are helping others, the volunteers who are busy yet finding time, and the range in ages and backgrounds of all our volunteers.
  • I’ve seen how much difference a little boost can make.  Once a person’s home situation is stabilized, it allows them to expend their energy in so many other areas.
  • I’ve learned that people have a lot more in common than we would think.  What they want for themselves and their families is no different than us. 

I want to finish up by referring back to the homeowner who asked “Why would I do this?”   

…………………….. I think my answer now is “Why wouldn’t I?” 

 Shanah Tovah! 

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