Call it “Extreme Makeover: Austin Edition.”

This past Saturday, more than 60 homeowners in Austin, the greater West Side and surrounding suburbs participated in the annual Rebuilding Together program, the ninth year for the collaborative housing effort. Rebuilding Together offers free home repairs in primarily lower-income Chicago communities and suburbs.

The program’s more than 70 sponsors include the City of Chicago and People’s Energy.

Low-income, elderly and disabled homeowners were eligible for home repairs, which began last Thursday, culminating in an all-day fix up of houses on Saturday. Hundreds of volunteers helped repair homes.

Ruth Harris, of the 5000 block of West Gladys, was among the more than a dozen Austin homeowners receiving home repairs, through sponsor People’s Energy.

Harris was joined by representatives from People’s Energy at a press conference Friday at her home.

Harris had her leaky basement ceiling fixed and a new cabinet and sink installed in the kitchen, along with a fresh coat of paint.

“I am just so grateful that I am having all these repairs made,” said a beaming Harris. “I received a letter in the mail about the program a few months ago and luckily I was chosen. Having the kitchen fixed up is just a blessing.”

Harris, a mother of seven, has been retired 15 years from Illinois Masonic Hospital. Harris, who also worked for a number of years for the Department of Children and Family Services, said that having the repairs done is especially timely since her youngest son will be moving out soon, and she probably would not be able to finance the repairs herself.

Volunteers began work on Harris’ home on Thursday.

“They usually spend Friday moving and rearranging furniture in the homes and then work on Saturday,” said People’s Energy Volunteer Coordinator Pat Alexander. “It really shows their level of commitment to the city of Chicago.”

People’s Energy sponsored repairs to four Austin homes, including Harris’. More than two-dozen homes in Austin were repaired on Saturday, including Viola Kelley, of the 4700 block of West Flournoy. Kelley, who has lived at her home for 30 years, received new doors, windows, kitchen and bathroom appliances, and fresh paint. Kelley heard about the program through the South Austin Coalition. She signed up at SACCC, and tried to sign up some of her neighbors. Only one, her next-door neighbor, took advantage of the program.

“I went to one of the meetings and just signed out,” she said. “I brought paperwork back to the other neighbors. They didn’t accept.”

Formerly known as “Christmas in April,” Rebuilding Together has repaired homes and provided other programs in Chicago and nationally since 1997. Homes in Chicago and south suburban Chicago are chosen. More than 100 corporations, labor unions, churches and service organizations are involved in the program.

Residents selected are required to own the homes chosen for renovations, and live in the homes within the selected areas that fall under U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-defined low-income guidelines.

“After all the applications are received we decide which homes we can see based on the resources available and the time we have to work,” said Will Evans, vice president of Peoples Energy. “Once we decide what homes we can repair, we figure out how much we’re going to need in terms of supplies and plan out each job.”

Evans said the planning takes about two months.

“All of the volunteers from the corporation look forward to it every year and many bring family members as well,” he said. “We must do jobs that could feasibly be finished in a timely and affordable manner in a day or so of work. So we couldn’t replace and entire roof, but we could repair a hole in the ceiling, paint a room or rot out a bath tub.”

“I’ve been organizing this project for two years,” said Alexander, “and each year we are able to get over a hundred employees and community volunteers to contribute their Saturday for a day of giving back to the community.”

For more information or to support Rebuilding Together call 312/201-1188 or visit

Terry Dean contributed to this story