by Thomas P. Healy
Seniors on fixed income are often strapped for cash to cover modest home repairs. NeighborLink, a Midtown-based nonprofit organization, is there to help.
According to director David Withey, NeighborLink spent $70,000 in 2017 on materials for 386 home repairs, most of which cost less than $1,000. “We’re spending very little money and solving a whole lot of problems,” he said recently, adding, “We have a lot of volunteers who buy supplies with money from their own pocket.”
Projects range from changing light bulbs to cleaning garages, unclogging drains, hanging drywall, fixing furnaces, painting, doing yard work, or hauling debris.
After 27 years in middle management at Eli Lilly and Company, Withey retired at age 54. He spent a year “playing” and then decided to volunteer. “I’m a handyman, so I asked Mapleton-Fall Creek Development Corporation if they had any homes to repair.” They did, and that gig led to his working with the South East Neighborhood Development Corporation. “I learned on my own how to repair houses,” he said.
Withey’s wife Pam worked in the office at Meridian Street United Methodist Church, 5500 N. Meridian St.; the church offered Withey office space and a mailing address for his volunteer project. “That’s where it incubated,” Withey said. Other churches got involved and he found himself undertaking repairs at 40 homes a year. “I was exhausted, so I looked for a model that would allow us to expand. The size of the problem is so big.”
He found a model in NeighborLink Network Foundation Inc., established in Fort Wayne in 2008. “It was an electronic bulletin board, set up by two lawyers, where you could post your needs and people would look and answer if they could help.” After refining the model for use in Indianapolis, Withey asked an attorney friend to help with the paperwork, and the nonprofit NeighborLink Indianapolis Foundation incorporated in 2013.
Although the new organization established a website at nlindy.org, Withey recognized that most of the group’s clients didn’t have computers. So he put a phone number on 100 fliers he passed out at a community event, and also relied on word-of-mouth. “We got 100 calls between September and December” that first year, he said. In 2014 the group received 500 calls.
“At that point I asked Tom Hawkins, a recently retired aeronautical engineer, if he would help. He used to volunteer at Central Indiana Council on Aging (CICOA),” Withey said. Jeanette Jefferis, a retired nurse and social worker whose background included working with seniors, became the third core member of NeighborLink’s team.
In 2015, NeighborLink received another 500 requests for assistance. “We had to pull back and focus,” Withey said. They established an income requirement—no more than 150% of the federal poverty level—and set geographic boundaries. Instead of serving the entire city, they limited their territory to the area north of Washington Street inside I-465.
They also expanded their volunteer roster. “We have an email list of 1,100 people who say they’ll help,” Withey said. Volunteers include college kids, people fulfilling community service obligations, personal friends, and contractors.
“We focus on seniors and the disabled,” he said. “We turn away 40 percent of the people who call because they either don’t meet our criteria or the project is too big. When we can’t do a project we refer them to someone else,” he said.
The group’s allies include CICOA and its Safe At Home modifications project that helps seniors with accessibility issues. The Indianapolis Neighborhood Housing Partnership (INHP) provides funding for larger projects, and the Christian Legal Clinic obtained grant funding so they could assist NeighborLink.
When Sam Odle worked at IU Health, he met Withey and collaborated with NeighborLink. “I have always been impressed by their commitment to help older homeowners stay in their homes,” he said. Now a senior advisor with Bose Public Affairs Group, Odle has been able to connect NeighborLink with contractors who have used or surplus equipment. NeighborLink finds donated labor for installation. “Government can’t do everything,” Odle said. “Neighbors helping neighbors, that’s a powerful thing.”
Odle mentioned the group’s work to PNC Bank, which recently provided a grant to NeighborLink. “Our goal is to identify and support unmet community needs,” said Pat Gamble-Moore, PNC’s vice president of community development banking in Indiana. “Many times it is small, grassroots organizations like NeighborLink that are filling the gaps. The families they serve are sometimes out of options, and NeighborLink helps meet them where they are with some of the most basic needs.”
To continue with its work, the group’s five-year plan seeks to expand the volunteer base, Withey said. “Two percent of the 1,100 recipients answer the email blasts we send out. That’s fine but it won’t repair a homeowner’s house or 90% of what we need.”
“We’re looking to make it sustainable but we need money and people—like an administrator,” Withey said. He added that NeighborLink is especially interested in contractors and skilled craftsmen to help with some of the more technically challenging projects.
Meanwhile, Withey said the group needs to decide if it wants to handle 1,400 projects a year or 500. More than 100 projects have been completed thus far in 2018. He said the three “retired” members of the core group spend 30 to 40 hours a week each on NeighborLink. “We’re organized, just short of time.”