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Meet the woman behind this Macon nonprofit that restores homes of elderly and disabled

Volunteers restore homes at annual Macon Rebuilding Day

Rebuilding Macon volunteer Jason Kelly repairs a home in Kings Park during the organization's annual Macon Rebuilding Day April 27, 2019
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Rebuilding Macon volunteer Jason Kelly repairs a home in Kings Park during the organization's annual Macon Rebuilding Day April 27, 2019

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Building Blocks from Blight

The Telegraph is investigating blight in Bibb County and its impact on the community. Over the next few months, Telegraph reporter Samantha Max will profile local residents affected by blight in their own communities. If you’d like to be interviewed, you can email her at smax@macon.com or call her at (478) 744-4306.

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At 7:45 a.m. on the last Saturday in April, Debra Rollins wove her way through a crowd of helpers as they sipped coffee and took a few final bites of their biscuits and grits.

The volunteers, donning bright red T-shirts, were fueling up before spending the day repairing houses around Bibb County.

Rollins, executive director of Rebuilding Macon, works with thousands of volunteers each year to renovate the homes of elderly and disabled residents who can’t afford to spruce them up on their own. During the organization’s annual Macon Rebuilding Day last week, Rollins shuffled between 12 houses, chatting with volunteers, delivering cans of paint, trouble-shooting plumbing emergencies and answering an endless stream of phone calls.

Rollins has spent every final Saturday in April for the past 25 years restoring homes. But before she moved to Macon, the Warner Robins native had never seen houses in such dire conditions.

“I didn’t realize what poverty was until I lived here,” she said.

Now, Rollins has inspected and rehabilitated dilapidated properties in dozens of neighborhoods throughout the county — neighborhoods many of her volunteers never knew existed.

“I’d make a great fireman,” she said, “because I know where every street is.”

Through her work with Rebuilding Macon, Rollins has painted homes in Beall’s Hill and installed wheelchair ramps in Pleasant Hill. She’s befriended homeowners from Kings Park to Lynmore Estates. She’s recruited thousands of volunteers, many of whom come back year after year to lend a hand.

As she drove between work sites last Saturday morning, Rollins pointed out houses the organization had restored over the years. Each house brought back memories of grateful homeowners, many of whom Rollins is still in touch with today.

“It means they can stay in their house. It means they can function,” Rollins said. “So, it does mean the world to ‘em. And we get some great thank you letters.”

‘It gives us a good feeling’

Rollins made her first stop at a house in Kings Park about 9 a.m., where a team of Geico employees was busy painting walls and filling trash bags with leaves and twigs. The head of the crew, Jason Kelly, has volunteered on Macon Rebuilding Day for the past 12 years.

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Rebuilding Macon volunteer Jason Kelly repairs the garage of a home in Kings Park during the organization’s annual Macon Rebuilding Day April 27, 2019. Samantha Max smax@macon.com

“A lot of people have trouble asking for help,” Kelly said. “And when we’re able to come out and just provide it, then, you know, it gives us a good feeling. It gives the homeowners a really good feeling, as well.”

At a house in Fort Hill, a group from Lawrence Drive Baptist Church sawed slabs of wood and repaired a bathroom leak that had rotted the floor. Around the corner on Wilkes Court, volunteers from the Rotary Club of Macon scraped off layers of chipping paint and brushed on a fresh, new coat.

Across town, on West Grenada Terrace, several parents stood on ladders, rolling blue paint onto an exterior wall while their kids filled in the spaces lower to the ground. As they worked, Raymond Taylor, the homeowner’s son, sat in a chair on the lawn, surrounded by paint buckets, pieces of wood, and piles of various supplies scattered around the yard.

His mother, who is 84 and diabetic, was at the doctor’s office for her tri-weekly dialysis treatment. But Taylor knew she’d be happy when she got home and saw the transformation.

“She’s probably gonna be crying,” he said.

A year-round effort to prevent blight

Rebuilding Macon doesn’t just rehabilitate homes one day a year. The group, founded in 1992, renovates about 250 homes throughout the year.

A group of retirees, who Rollins calls her “Good Samaritans,” volunteer every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Local high school students help to paint houses and college students from around the country spend their school breaks adjusting leaky faucets and repairing roofs through the organization’s Destination Rebuilding Macon program.

The nonprofit bridges communities of all different backgrounds, Rollins said. On work days, she often pairs volunteers from predominantly black churches with predominantly white churches, Jews with Seventh-day Adventists and private school students with neighborhood residents.

Volunteers also build strong relationships with the homeowners, even after the work is done, Rollins said.

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Executive Director of Rebuilding Macon Debra Rollins, left, chats with homeowner Gary Higgins, right, as volunteers repair his back door during the organization’s annual Macon Rebuilding Day April 27, 2019. Samantha Max smax@macon.com

Organizations like Rebuilding Macon take a proactive approach to blight, before substandard housing gets out of hand, she said. The nonprofit not only restores run-down homes, but it also helps older homeowners to write wills, so that their property won’t be abandoned when they’re gone.

“Nothing frustrates me more than to see a house that I know we’ve worked on for days and days and have it looking beautiful and then the lady dies and nobody’s taking care of it,” Rollins said. “’Cause, when that happens, the title to the property is in limbo.”

Rollins thinks Bibb County has hit its peak with blight. Rebuilding Macon’s waitlist is 250 clients long, and 100 more homes still await inspection. After decades of neglect, multiple groups are working to repair or demolish the thousands of decaying structures throughout the county, Rollins said.

Some days, she said, the amount of blight is overwhelming.

“We’re making up for the sins of our past,” Rollins said. “We can’t just let things sit and wait for somebody to come in. We’ve got to get out there and do it.”

The key to addressing blight, Rollins said, is more investment and more coordination between the different groups that receive that investment, like code enforcement and the Fuller Center for Housing.

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Executive Director of Rebuilding Macon Debra Collins, right, hugs long-time volunteer Melineaze Lowe, center, while she and another volunteer building a mailbox during the organization’s annual Macon Rebuilding Day April 27, 2019. Samantha Max smax@macon.com

“We need more resources. We need more help,” she said. “But the biggest thing is, we need more organization to keep things from overlapping.”

Rollins hopes Rebuilding Macon’s volunteers will gain an appreciation for the things many take for granted, like running water and heat. Many of her clients live without even the most basic necessities, she said, adding that it’s easy to avoid the parts of town where some of Macon’s most vulnerable residents live.

“You don’t know it’s there until you do something like this,” she said.

Repairing homes is the best way Rollins knows to give back to her community. She loves spending her days making a difference in people’s lives, one house at a time.

“It’s kind of hard to be a good citizen if you aren’t helping other people, and this is the way I can do it,” Rollins said. “I’m not real good at taking care of babies, but I love taking care of houses.”

This story is part of a series in The Telegraph investigating blight in Bibb County and its impact on the community. Over the next few months, Telegraph reporter Samantha Max will profile local residents affected by blight in their own communities. If you’d like to be interviewed, you can email her at smax@macon.com or call her at (478) 744-4306.

Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/smax1996 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. You can also join her Facebook group. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.

Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. She joined The Telegraph in June of 2018 and reports on the health of the community. Samantha graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in 2018. As an undergraduate student, she interned for the Medill Justice Project, Hoy (Chicago Tribune’s Spanish-language publication) and NPR-affiliate station WYPR in her hometown of Baltimore. Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/smax1996 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. You can also join her Facebook group. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.


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