The racket outside the home of 82-year-old Mary Louise Camel was almost deafening at times, but she didn’t mind.
Camel had been waiting for two years for someone to help her, she said, and on Saturday morning, her wait was finally over. More than two dozen LSU Sigma Chi fraternity “actives” and a half-dozen Sigma Chi alumni’s nailed new tar paper onto parts of the roof, scraped and painted the window frames and some siding, dragged fallen branches and yard junk to the curb, replaced two screen doors and built a wheelchair ramp onto her home on Osborne Street.
The project at Camel’s house was one of the community service projects the fraternity worked on over the weekend, including three homes all next to each other on Indiana Street, and the playground at the Iris Domestic Violence Shelter, formerly called the Capital Area Family Violence Intervention Center. The projects were coordinated with Rebuilding Together Baton Rouge, a local nonprofit group dedicated to improving the homes and lives of low-income elderly residents.
“It’s wonderful — it’s wonderful, it’s wonderful,” Camel exclaimed. “And it needed it! I appreciate everything they did and they are doing a wonderful job.”
Camel shares her small home with her daughter, Rose Camel, and Rose’s 6-year-old daughter, Takedra.
“God is good — that’s all I can say — God is good!” Rose Camel said.
Takedra just smiled.
Out front, where a crew was framing the wheelchair ramp, LSU sophomore Cody Vanderlick, 20, was pouring cement, sand and water into a post hole while house captain and Rebuilding Together board member Jimmy Walters held the 4-foot by 4-foot post plumb until the mix hardened.
“This makes me feel great helping out the community,” Vanderlick said. “It definitely isn’t easy, but it’s worth it.”
A few miles away, at an undisclosed location, progress at the Iris shelter’s playground was shaping up as another two dozen active members of the fraternity along with alumni trimmed bushes, scraped rusted paint, and tore down old playground equipment to make room for new swings and slides.
Rebuilding Together Baton Rouge is part of a national network of about 200 Rebuilding Together affiliates in cities across the nation, explained Chris Andrews, RTBR’s executive director, and is not a part of Together Baton Rouge, which is a separate local community group.
“Our mission is to work primarily on elderly homeowner’s homes and to help the people stay in the homes for as long as they can through remedial repairs,” Andrews said.
“The (LSU) kids have been wonderful,” Andrews said. “They have been very enthusiastic and responsible.”
Rebuilding Together Baton Rouge also works on community projects, Andrews said. For example, last year they painted the cafeteria at St. Vincent de Paul. On April 26, they will host “Build Day” with over 10 projects planned across the metro area, he said.
The playground is an essential part of the Iris shelter, explained Sylvia Duke, shelter board vice-president, because 23 of the current female residents have 21 children among them.
“One of the things we believe in is early intervention, and if the children come here and have a safe environment, a calm environment, they want to stay here and the playground is part of that,” added Audrey Wascome, the Iris center’s director of development. “Children need to have a safe place to play and to be kids.”
State budget cuts slashed their budget, Wascome said, “so we don’t have the extra funds for things like the playground.” The efforts of Rebuilding Together Baton Rouge and Sigma Chi’s “were very needed,” she said.
Over on Indiana Street, Sigma Chi men were painting, sawing, and hammering on three homes. A contractor’s trailer, emblazoned with “Rebuilding Together Baton Rouge” and filled with tools, was parked nearby.
Loren Kleinpeter, a local attorney and Sigma Chi chapter advisor, said there are 135 student members, and 85 of them along with 18 alumni, or “adults,” he said with a laugh, were participating Saturday. The group raised the $5,000 needed to pay for the paint and other materials, he said.
Homeowner response has been “positive so far,” Kleinpeter said.
Matt Burland, 20, an LSU junior majoring in construction management and the project coordinator, divided the young men into groups according to their construction skills — or lack of skills.
“It was important for us to find a local project,” he said.
Lake Douglas, the group’s faculty adviser, said this kind of project is good for the students to get them out of the classroom and doing physical labor.
“It’s good practice for them to become a well-rounded, contributing member of the community,” Douglas said.
Hunter Ewing, 19, another construction management major, was operating the miter saw.
“This house definitely needs some work and these people don’t have the money to do things that need to be done,” Ewing said. “It makes me feel great.”
Next door, Brooks Cowles, 21, a junior and chapter president, was overseeing a crew painting fresh blue paint over faded gray paint.
“We’re only here for four years and we want to make an impact on the community,” Cowles said. “The guys like making a difference.”
Alumni Greg Scott, a banker, was making sure the young men, none of whom grew up in neighborhoods like this one, were supplied with paint.
“This is a new experience for them,” Scott said. “They’re not here learning a trade — they’re here trying to do something else for somebody else that doesn’t have the same circumstances they do.”
Next door, as another crew painted her home, elderly resident Christine Weatherspoon said she’d lived in her house for 40 years and was glad to see the fresh paint.
“I like things nice,” she said.