Home improvement gives joy to the world

Every year, it's the same routine: checking the list to see who gets what. Going from place to place to make sure everything is in stock. Getting people to help with assembling the gifts. And finally, preparing for the Big Day, when the presents are handed off to the delighted recipients.

Chad Oakley (WG'00) has been through this for four years. And every year, he and scores of his fellow Penn students feel the same excitement as Christmas approaches.

Christmas in April, that is. The presents in this case are rehabilitated houses, repaired at no cost to their low-income and elderly owners. The program, which operates in hundreds of cities across the country, got its local start in 1988 when a Wharton School student, Robert Bellinger, decided he wanted to give something back to West Philadelphia.

This year, Oakley said, the Philadelphia chapter of Christmas in April rehabbed 24 West Philadephia houses using volunteer labor and donated materials and services.

Oakley managed the rehabbing of one of those houses.

Chad Oakley takes a break as the West Philadelphia rowhouse gets final touches.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

Located in the 5800 block of Race Street, the house Oakley served as a "house manager" for is what Christmas in April staff call a "heavy" house, meaning that the work needed to make it "safe, warm and dry" - the organization's aim -requires significant professional help.

In fact, Oakley said, "we're going above and beyond 'safe, warm and dry' on this house, thanks to the generosity of sponsoring firms like Deloitte Consulting [Oakley's former employer and a longtime Christmas in April sponsor] and the Harkin Group," the contracting company that donated skilled labor and new kitchen appliances for Oakley's house. In addition to a new kitchen, the house got a rebuilt bathroom, a new laundry room, a rebuilt front porch, a restored dining room ceiling and a new coat of paint from top to bottom.

Identifying the tasks that required skilled labor was part of Oakley's job, along with making sure that materials and enough volunteers were on hand to complete the rehab on "event day" April 17.

Oakley's involvement in Christmas in April began not long after he went to work at Deloitte Consulting. "My first year, I went out one Saturday morning and was immediately hooked on the warm and fuzzy feeling you get from this kind of work."

Oakley knew nothing about the program at the time other than what a co-worker told him: "Wear dirty pants and show up for work." But his participation has taught him skills he never thought he'd learn. "Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd ever replace a floor," he said - but last year, he did.

Serving as a house manager also helped him appreciate just how complex even a small construction job can be. "People have a sense of slowness with construction projects," he said. "I now know why that's so. You run into all sorts of unforeseen difficulties."

While Christmas in April at Penn is commonly associated with Wharton, Oakley stressed that volunteers and project teams come from across the University. "There are houses sponsored by the Law School, the Nursing School, and the School of Medicine," he said. "And there are a lot of undergraduates involved."

So far, the organization has been able to rehab more houses each year, though Oakley said that "certainly there will come a time when that's physically impossible." But for now, the main limit to what Christmas in April can do each year is the number of volunteers who participate.

Although Christmas in April has passed, it's not to early to get involved for next year's projects. Information about the program can be found by visiting the Christmas in April Web site or by calling 568-5044.

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Originally published on April 29, 1999