CEDAR RAPIDS — Every year, Cedar Rapids nonprofit Matthew 25 holds Transform Week, sending teams of volunteers out into the Taylor and Time Check neighborhoods to tackle home repair projects. Those neighborhoods have been at the heart of the organization’s Block by Block rebuilding efforts since the 2008 floods inundated them.
But when the derecho swept through Cedar Rapids on Aug. 10, it didn’t focus its destruction on a few neighborhoods. It left no part of Cedar Rapids untouched. So Matthew 25 decided to respond in kind.
This year’s Transform Week, which wrapped up Friday, focused on derecho damage repairs for low-income residents throughout Cedar Rapids. Volunteers tackled around 20 projects during the week, everything from small projects like removing chimney bricks off a roof to complete roof replacements.
“This is really kind of what it means to come together and help our community,” Matthew 25 Executive Director Clint Twedt-Ball said.
After the storm hit, Matthew 25’s staff started looking for ways to help while simultaneously dealing with damage to the organization’s building — the roof came off, and there is extensive water damage inside. The Groundswell Cafe inside the building will remain closed until repairs are made. The greenhouse roof at the organization’s Urban Farm also came off, and they lost several fruit trees.
A need they identified quickly from talking to neighbors was for generators during the extended power outage, so they set up a generator loan program, getting generators to about 105 families.
“Giving out the generators and listening to people on the streets, you see all the gaps which other things aren’t going to cover,” Twedt-Ball said. “It became pretty apparent we needed to shift as much as we can to close those gaps for people.”
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He talked about a statistic from a United Way report that 47 percent of Iowans don’t have $400 saved in case of an emergency — and that number was from before the pandemic and related recession.
“In neighborhoods we work in, it’s probably 75 percent,” Twedt-Ball said. “That means this disaster has a ripple effect that won’t last just a few weeks but months or years ... Really, the mission of Matthew 25 is to help those who struggle the most.”
Part of Transform Week’s focus was on Edgewood Forest Mobile Home Park, where many mobile homes were destroyed by the storm. For others, the skirting blew off. It’s an important part of the structure that surrounds the base of the home and provides insulation, keeping pipes from freezing in the winter. Working with the property’s maintenance manager, the Matthew 25 team salvaged skirting from destroyed mobile homes and used it to repair other homes that lost their skirting.
“We’re trying to do things that are asked for rather than making assumptions about what needs to be done,” said project coordinator and volunteer Jerry Oakland. “We need to honor the people who live here and what their priorities and needs are.”
Volunteer Brad Colton was working on the skirting. He pointed to the piles of brush surrounding the mobile homes — with no curb to drag them to — and the debris lying everywhere.
“The city needs to know they need dumpsters out here,” he said. “This area still really needs help.”
Aaron Saylor, Matthew 25 neighborhood building manager, helps match volunteers with projects, so that there are skilled leaders at each site. They can only take on certain projects, based on the skills of their volunteers — they won’t do a plumbing project, for example, unless they have someone with the right skills helping.
The organization will hold a second Transform Week Oct. 13 to 18. Volunteers and people with home projects can apply at hub25.org.
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It had already decided to add the second week before the storm hit because of the pandemic. The second week spreads out the number of volunteers on site at a given time. Also, fewer volunteers signed up for this week’s Transform projects, Twedt-Ball said. Many corporations that regularly send volunteer crews opted not to this year. In past years Matthew 25 has had 200 to 300 volunteers at a Transform Week. This year they had 80 to 90. Jana Bodensteiner, director of development and communications for Matthew 25, said she believes fatigue was a factor, as many people have been clearing trees and debris in their own yards and helping their neighbors for the last three weeks already.
“In my opinion, the city of Cedar Rapids is just tired right now, so we’re extra appreciative of all the volunteers who have come out to help us,” she said.
Volunteers also worked on a project Matthew 25 had already identified before the storm — building a garden shed for Amber Bena, who lives near the Urban Farm and was storing her lawn mower in her kitchen.
“I’ve been having to ask people to help me lift it back into the house. I have a 1-year-old, and this is a one bedroom house, so now we have more room inside,” she said. “It would have taken me years to save for this. It’s nice to have it done now.”
Matthew 25 will continue with derecho repairs throughout the year. It may hire an additional staff member to focus on construction, Twedt-Ball said. This is the third natural disaster the nonprofit has responded to since it was founded in 2006 — the 2008 and 2016 floods and now the derecho. He believes organizations need to be prepared to continue to respond to these kinds of events because of climate change.
“It’s part of the changing world we live in,” he said. “We should have organizations geared up to do this work, because it’s going to just become more frequent.”
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