Branford Veteran's Home Repaired with Help from HomeFront, St. John Bosco Parish
Branford veteran Keith Brooks, left, stands with St. John Bosco Parish Business Manager Ronald Shea as a work party brings needed fixes to Brooks' home on Oct. 23 as part of a HomeFront initiative. At left (back to camera), volunteer Jerry Staunton. (Photo by Pam Johnson/The Sound)
By mid-morning, a drafty picture window in the home had already been removed and replaced; one of several new windows installed Oct. 23 at Branford veteran Keith Brooks' home. Shown here, the new window's frame is nailed in by volunteers Nicholas Borrero (left) and Rick Burns (right). (Photo by Pam Johnson/The Sound)
On Sat. Oct. 23, a small army of volunteers from St. John Bosco Parish made critical fixes to the Branford home of Coast Guard veteran Keith Brooks, in a wave of support organized by Stamford-based non-profit HomeFront Inc.
HomeFront does the homeowner vetting, material and cost fundraising and sponsorship programming, then works with corporate and faith-based groups who provide the volunteer manpower to get the job done in one day. HomeFront had pinpointed Brooks' DeForest Drive home as of 23 homes statewide in need of repair assistance this fall. It was also one of four large-scale projects taking place on Oct. 23 in conjunction with assistance from The Home Depot Foundation, due to Brooks' status as a veteran. He served during the Vietnam era.
A Branford resident of 40 years and a widower, Brooks said he did his best to maintain his raised ranch home near the North Branford border, but in recent years, much of his income and attention had to be focused on providing needed care for his late wife. He said he heard about the HomeFront program and reached out.
"I was going through some financial difficulties and I said let me give them a call to see what they would say about my situation and the condition of my house," he said.
Brooks made his first call to HomeFront five years ago. The non-profit responded immediately, but the wait list was long.
"We get about 800 requests per year across the state," said HomeFront Executive Director Sean O'Brien.
Unfortunately, Covid put an additional damper on getting assistance out to Brooks. After 30 years of supplying annual work party weekends the first Saturday in May to large-scale projects such as the one required to repair Brooks' Branford home, HomeFront had to suspend the programs in May 2020 and May 2021 due to the pandemic.
O'Brien came out to the Branford home Oct. 23 with HomeFront board chair Kenneth Wiegand to thank the St. John Bosco volunteers and greet Brooks.
Several factors go into determining whether a homeowner will qualify for HomeFront assistance, said O'Brien.
"They have to meet our income guidelines and have enough money to be able to hold on to their home; but the idea of making major repairs is daunting," he said. "We also visit with every homeowner that applies, in person, to verify they qualify and document their needs."
Brooks said the people from HomeFront were surprised by his living conditions when they came out to visit his home several years ago. He'd pulled up the carpeting in the house due to allergens, but couldn't afford to replace it with new flooring. The home also had aging, ineffective windows in need of replacement; another expense Brooks couldn't manage.
While assistance couldn't arrive right away, Brooks said HomeFront stayed in touch throughout; and that kept him positive. He also kept doing what he could on his own to maintain his home, including finding a crew willing to paint the exterior for what he could afford and putting some inexpensive rugs on the floors.
"I was able to correct some of the problems, but I was dealing with my wife being sick from cancer at the same time," he said.
After two and a half years of care and traveling for hospitalizations in New York and Pennsylvania, his late wife, Margaret, wanted to come back home, said Brooks. She received Hospice care until she passed away in their house in March 2020.
"So this is a part of me," said Brooks of his home. "I can't leave it."
That's part of the reason why, "I get so emotional when I see these guys," he said, gesturing to the work party volunteers on Oct. 23. "They've seen my cry. But I'm smiling, too."
O'Brien was also smiling because this particular project was something with which HomeFront could only afford to assist thanks to a big contribution from the Home Depot Foundation which works to support veterans.
"What makes this one a little tricky is that there's so many windows to be replaced; and that can be very costly," said O'Brien. "But since Mr. Brooks is a veteran, and we received a grant from the Home Depot Foundation, we were able to kind of pull it all together for him. So this is going above and beyond what we do for a typical project; and that's because the Home Depot Foundation is helping us to afford all of the windows -- especially now, with the pandemic 'sticker shock' and supply issues."
St. John Bosco parish business manager Ronald Shea, who organized bringing in the day's volunteers, said he first learned about HomeFront about 15 years ago, while serving on the board of the Catholic Social Justice Ministry office of the Archdiocese of Hartford. Shea brought the program to the attention of the parish, which embraced it.
Shea said the Oct. 23 project on DeForest Road is the second to be recently coordinated with the Branford-based parish and HomeFront in this area. Another took place about two years ago on Bryan Road, before Covid curbed the ability to bring volunteers out to help in large numbers. Other collaborative efforts with HomeFront have also taken place through the years, said Shea.
"On and off, we've done several projects around Branford, or just over the line in North Branford," said Shea. "The people from HomeFront really do all vetting and organizing. They give us a list of projects in town that might be a fit for us and the skill sets of our parishioners, who are of course volunteers."
"The churches are our best teams, actually," said Wiegand. "They have the most qualified people in terms of carpentry and plumbing and electricity."
Shea credited the Oct. 23 work crew's excellent effort to the leadership of parishioner Matt Hally, who was the day's "house captain" for the project. The work started early in the morning, with a Boy Scout Troop connected to the parish arriving at about 8 a.m. to quickly haul out years of clutter filling a basement storage area. As parts of the house, such as windows, were removed and replaced, more clean-up work continued throughout the day, with assistance from parishioners including Jerry Staunton.
"I try to do what I can for the church, and I like to do for people," said Staunton, who also worked with Hally to assist at the Bryan Road project.
As Staunton worked to fill a Dumpster outside, volunteers could be seen at work inside the home behind him. Parishioner Rick Burns and volunteer Nicholas Borrero were hard at work removing and replacing a large picture window looking out over Brooks' front yard from the ground floor interior.
"I'm very humbled and I'm very grateful," said Brooks. "When people are doing something nice for you, you've got to appreciate it."
According to information supplied by HomeFront, "...the collective compassion of hands-on volunteers, product contributors, foundations and other donors brings HomeFront to the mark of more than 3,000 homes revitalized in program history, delivering $50 million of service where needed most." Since March, 2020, HomeFront has also been offering a modified volunteer team approach to home repair, through its Critical Pro Repair initiative, assisting 50 families, to date. The initiative teams skilled HomeFront staff with one or two pro volunteers to respond to crucial exterior repairs, such as wheelchair ramp installations, step and walkway overhauls and deck repairs to assist struggling families.
HomeFront is a community-based program dedicated to keeping low-income homeowners in their homes with an improved quality of life through substantial repairs completed at no cost to them. More information on HomeFront can be found online at: www.homefrontprogram.org.