Volunteers from Rebuilding Together work on west Berkeley home. Photos: Frances Dinkelspiel

After living in her west Berkeley house for more than 50 years with a heavy smoker, Mariluz Gonzales’ walls had turned a mahogany brown. The trees in her backyard had grown so tall they were abutting the house, permitting rats to travel into the attic. The soffits under the eaves had gotten so rotten that a chunk fell down last winter, damaging a neighbor’s car.

But, by Saturday afternoon, Mrs. Gonzalez’ walls were a bright white, her trees were trimmed, she had a new handrail, and work had started on repairing the rotten wood throughout the house. The makeover was accomplished through the efforts of about 30 volunteers working with Rebuilding Together.

Mariluz Gonzalez' home was rebuilt

“I don’t know what to say because it is so beautiful,” said Mrs. Gonzalez, 84, as she sat on a chair on her front lawn, watching the work on her house.

“I am incredibly grateful,” added her daughter, Carmella Gonzalez-Shalaby. “You see the world with not a lot of good things going on and then you see this – where all these people are giving their time. It’s overwhelming. I am so grateful and so humbled at the same time.”

The work on Mrs. Gonzales’ house was just one of many projects Rebuilding Together East Bay-North did on Saturday as part of their “Heroes at Home” project focusing on veterans and their families.

For the past 20 years, the East Bay chapter has brought together scores of volunteers, home improvement stores, and corporate sponsors, like Sears and Safeway, to repair and rebuild the homes of low-income seniors, disabled people, war veterans, and non-profits in Berkeley, Albany, Oakland, and Richmond. In the month of April, more than 600 volunteers worked on 22 projects around the region, according to Julie Scheff, development manager.

Nationally, Rebuilding Together (which has 200 chapters across the country) repairs nearly 10,000 structures each year.

Painting a room

Michael McDowell, a Berkeley contractor, first volunteered for the organization in 1991 and has served as a house captain since then, organizing volunteers, materials and building expertise.

“I remember the first time I did this,” said McDowell. “I was never so tired, but I never felt so happy about helping someone. Without our help, Mrs. Gonzalez wouldn’t be able to stay in this house where she has lived for more than 50 years.”

Mrs. Gonzalez and her husband, who had been a paratrooper in Japan during World War II, bought the Valley Street house more than 50 years ago using funds from the GI Bill. They raised two children there and lived together until Mr. Gonzalez died two years ago.

The house, built in 1907, had fallen into disrepair and presented many health hazards, said Scheff.  There were stairs with no handrails or inadequate handrails, telephone wires crisscrossing the living room floor, an inoperable bathroom, and cracked and dirty walls.

The volunteers converged on the small house early Saturday and started painting, hammering, trimming trees, repairing the sidewalk, and moving furniture. After they finish, the city of Berkeley will lend Mrs. Gonzalez the funds to install a new roof and do other repairs.

Installing a new handrail

The volunteers included people from Union Bank, Mechanics Bank, and Berkeley’s economic development and planning departments. There were also people from UC Berkeley, Berkeley Public Education Foundation, Pegasus Books, Metro Lighting, Redwood Acupuncture, and other companies who joined the renovation project as part of Leadership East Bay, an eight-month long program of the Berkeley and Emeryville Chambers of Commerce.

Now that the house has been repaired and made safe, Mrs. Gonzalez can live there the rest of her life, said her daughter Gonzalez-Shalaby. And the family intends to make sure that other seniors get the gift Mrs. Gonzalez received.

“When the time comes and we do sell the house, I am definitely going to give some money back to them (Rebuilding Together) so they can continue,” said Gonzalez-Shalalby. “I am feeling incredibly grateful.”

A volunteer paints the stairwell
The volunteers

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...