Prince George's County brings “Christmas in April” to residents in need



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In its 28th year of rehabilitating low-income homes, revitalizing neighborhoods and giving the gift of hope and dignity to homeowners, the Prince George’s County’s Christmas in April program has grown from 600 volunteers repairing 30 homes in 1989 to now 3,200 volunteers helping to repair 81 homes, thanks to the leadership of program founder Vincent “Cap” Mona, as well as the cooperative efforts of sponsors including county government, individual donors, businesses, civic and community organizations, restaurants and churches.

From Accokeek to Laurel, Christmas in April facilitates the renovation of homes at no financial cost to the recipients — who are either low-income, physically challenged or disabled senior citizens — so they may live in warmth, safety and independence. The program, which is part of national organization with 249 affiliates throughout the U.S., grew out of the urgent need for betting housing conditions and neighbor-helping-neighbor partnerships, according to the Christmas in April website.

“When you get to have an organization that’s pretty large, you feel not only empowered but responsible to do something,” said Mona, who is also founder and CEO of Mona Electric Group Inc. based in Clinton. “You’re responsible for your employees, their families, their children’s education [and] upbringing. So we just reached out a little further in the community and we had people like [U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer] and other friends in the community, whether they’re governmental or a business, and say, ‘Let’s help others.’ Neighbor helping neighbor — that’s what it’s all about.”

Mona joined Hoyer at a worksite Saturday in Clinton where about 45 volunteers from Mona Electric, the Christmas in April program and Planet Green Lawn and Landscape helped restore a home belonging to the Joseph family, who have lived in the area for 30 years. Judith “Judy” Joseph and her husband, George, are both elderly and have numerous health issues. Their health costs don’t allow extra money to upkeep their home. George suffers from a bad shoulder and said he needs surgery on one of his knees.

“We’ve had quite a few of them and I cry when I hear some of these stories. I’m not immune to that,” Mona said. “We have a heart, we have a heart.”

Judith is a two-time cancer survivor. She was first diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2000 and told she’d have six months to live. Then in 2003, doctors removed her left lung in an effort to save her life. She currently suffers from diabetes which makes her legs swell up among other physical challenges.

“I’ve had two cancers and another third big surgery,” she said. “I’m having a hard time going up and down steps. The rug that was on the steps was old and slippery, you couldn’t get any grip. I was always afraid of falling so they fixed that for me. … Just the little things but they mean a lot.”

“I felt really bad and I know that they’re elderly and they can’t do their own house work. Everyone deserves to have a good looking house,” said 14-year-old volunteer Kolbe Cook. “The doctor told [Judith that she] had six months to live and here she is 16 years later so I just came to do whatever I could do.”

George said it’s overwhelming to see so many people, of all ages, come together and volunteer to help out his family.

“Humbled is the only word I can think of,” said George, who plays guitar and sings in The Sweetwater Band which he has led for nearly 40 years. “Words can’t explain how I feel. My wife and I are not able to do a lot of this stuff. … I’m just so appreciative.”

About 240 man-hours were put into rehabilitating the Joseph’s home which included bringing electrical outlets up to code, installing new door fixtures, painting, landscaping, clearing out debris from gutters as well as making bathroom, kitchen, bedrooms, roof, furnace and window repairs. Everything the volunteers set out to do that day was accomplished and the Josephs were extremely satisfied, according to Andy Mona, one of the house captains.

“Being a part of Christmas in April is something we’ve always done,” said Mona Electric Group Service Operations Vice President Jason Howell, who was the other house captain. “I’ve told Judy several times, I get as much out of this as they do … I’m a big believer in paying it forward. Hopefully, if I’m at the age to where I need some help, there’s people going to be around to help me.”

Capitol Heights was another service area where volunteers gathered at the home of Hilda Smith, an 82-year-old who is paralyzed and wheelchair bound due to a massive stroke she suffered 10 years ago. House captain John Weaver, a volunteer firefighter with the Capitol Heights Volunteer Fire Department, assisted with inspections around the area and selected Smith’s home to receive repair services.

As part of the program’s inspection process, Weaver said he goes out in November and chooses qualified homes that can be repaired within one day.

“Some homes don’t have any heat, they don’t have any water and things like that so we try to see if we can help out,” said Weaver. “We want them to stay in their home just to make it work for them.”

Volunteers from Weaver’s department, the Prince George’s Fire Department, Prince George’s Community College (PGCC) and AARP Suitland Chapter 939 worked together to perform a lengthy list of repairs from installing floodlights outside of the home to placing a new vanity and toilet in the basement, Weaver said.

“I really appreciate it. They are so sweet and they are so kind to do this for an elderly person,” said Audrey Smith, who stays with her mom to take care of her. “It’s a wonderful feeling for me. It’s a wonderful feeling for her [my mom]. She thought that they were going to take her home from her but they [reassured] her that they wanted her to stay in her home.”

Tahia Shendy, a first-year college student who attends PGCC, was very excited to have an opportunity to volunteer and be a part of the program. Shendy said doing the renovations on the Smith’s home was a lot of fun.

“Everyone gets together, we’re all helping out, we’re making jokes and working with the people who live here [as well as] other volunteers we don’t know from different organizations,” she said. “It’s like being a part of a little family for a day where we can fix a house, make somebody’s life a little bit better. … To fix something so personal to people is really important and to get to be a part of that project and make a little legacy. … It’ll be nice to know that other people can use this house.”

Having participated in the Christmas in April program for the past 27 years, Weaver said the organization is one that he cherishes and enjoys.

“It feels outstanding to be able to help somebody, [especially] seeing the family’s reaction once everything is done and being grateful for what they got,” he said.

Like Hilda Smith, homeowner Mattie Jackson is also a senior citizen who is wheelchair bound. Jackson’s son, Anthony Green, is a disabled veteran suffering from spinal injuries. The home, located in District Heights, was worked on by a team of volunteers from the Joint Base Andrews (JBA) 11th Civil Engineer and Logistics Readiness squadrons, Cheltenham United Methodist Church and Berean Baptist Church of Clinton.

Twenty-two year seasoned house captain, Walter Poliansky, partnered with fellow house captain Craig Newman to make sure Jackson’s quality of life was improved.

“It’s not about me. It’s a community effort,” said Poliansky, a retired Air Force chief master sergeant. “The Air Force has been an advocate for this program for many years. They’ve been out here in full force.”

Master Sgt. Daryl Bagley from JBA’s 11th LRS, who recently had a permanent change of station from Germany, said volunteering is not about the recognition. For Bagely, it’s about serving others, just as he has done in the military for over 22 years, he said.

“We came out here to support Ms. Mattie and make sure that her quality of life is a little bit better,” Bagley said. “Nothing about this is going on my record or whatever. I just like doing this. … I’ve been here for about a year so I’m just trying to do more and whatever I can to give back to the community.”

For other volunteers like Chiara Selby Griffith, choir director at Cheltenham United Baptist, she said it’s about extending the love of Jesus Christ to people who need a little helping hand.

“It’s a rather selfish thing to do because what comes back is always so much greater,” said Griffith.

Green said he and his family received early Christmas gifts thanks to the volunteers who not only helped restore their home, but their hope as well.

“We lost all our stuff because of the pipes that burst in the wintertime,” he said. “The carpet was destroyed, most of our belongings, personal stuff, our furniture, bed, couch — we lost everything. Christmas in April stepped in and replaced almost everything. It’s a relief because without them, the house would look vacant and now it doesn’t.”

Since the program’s inception in 1989, Prince George’s County Christmas in April has rehabilitated 2,501 homes with more than 84,000 volunteers, and completed an estimated $44,018,000 worth of free repairs, according to program executive director Mary Kucharski.

“It’s awesome. It lets you know that this country is really about caring,” Mona said. “All you need is a little bit of opportunity and we open the door and you see the flood of humans helping others.”