Community helps rebuild home after fire
By Pat Shea
Sun associate editor
Faith is strong at Hesed House and it shows in the renovations of a structure devastated by fire a year ago. The house is home to Ann O’Connor and Peter King, the hospitallers of the Unity Kitchen Community of the Catholic Worker, which provides dinner hospitality to the poor. Hesed House is rising out of the ashes at 167 Palmer Street due to the efforts, financial support and prayers of the community.
“There have been so many people who have helped us out, I’d hate to name anyone in fear we might forget or leave someone out,” stated O’Connor, who has been with Unity Kitchen since 1971. “So many, many people have contributed in whatever way they could, either through donation or volunteering.”
O’Connor smiles as King, her husband of 33 years, waters plants that line a newly painted window ledge. This room was once the dining room but will now be O’Connor’s new bedroom once the couple returns to their home.
Until the renovations are complete, the couple is staying at an apartment provided by Catholic Charities. Their hope is to return to Hesed House by June 1, but the renovation has slowed down due to lack of funds. O’Connor and King have to raise at least $25,000 to finish the repairs before moving back into the house.
“Phase one was general contracting, phase two was renovating the interior structure and now we need to finish phase three which will bring both groups together again,” stated King. “The house wasn’t insured and after the fire, there was so much damage and so much that needed to be done. We believe the Lord will take care of us.”
Word that Hesed House and King and O’Connor needed help went out following the fire and a variety of community organizations and volunteers came forward. One of those groups, Operation Northern Comfort, a non-profit organization under St. Joseph the Worker’s 501c charity program, was ready to lend a hand.
“We heard about the Hesed House fire from Norm Andrzewski, the director for Operation Southern Comfort, our sister organization that helped rebuild homes in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina,” stated Dick Bonanno, director of Operation Northern Comfort. “Members from Northern Comfort went to Hesed house to meet with Peter and Ann and once we saw the damage, we offered to do whatever we could to help. We knew they had a limited budget and we had the volunteers.”
A constant presence
To renovate Hesed House, King and O’Connor worked first with a general contractor for the major repairs and replacements such as rebuilding the porch, replacing the windows and the roof, but when it came to drywall and painting, volunteers from Northern Comfort were a constant presence.
“Operation Northern Comfort put up the insulation and drywall and we worked on the ceiling, the doors and putting the wood trim back,” stated Bonanno.
There are over 200 volunteer names on the email list for Operation Northern Comfort, but according to Bonanno, it usually comes down to a core group of 30 people who turn out for the majority of the jobs. “These are dedicated, roll-up-your-sleeves-and-let’s-get-to-work kind of guys,” explained Bonanno. “Hesed House is just one of the many projects we are working on.”
From laying down kitchen floors for an elderly gentleman who no longer has the strength to do it, or building ramps for people who use wheelchairs, Operation Northern Comfort is always busy helping those in need in Central New York.
“One of the most rewarding projects we’ve had so far was erecting a wheelchair ramp for a woman who couldn’t get outside her house because of the steps. We finished the ramp and she just rolled down it, grinning from ear to ear,” said Bonanno, his voice filled with emotion. “You just can’t beat that kind of reward.”
Bonanno has been with the group since it’s inception and with Operation Southern Comfort prior to that. “At times I feel overwhelmed when I see how many people are in need. It’s not just carpentry: it’s reaching out to help a neighbor.”
Bonanno hopes it won’t be much longer before O’Connor and King can return to Hesed House. “When I see things like the drywall going up and walls being painted I think, ‘Wow, we are really making a difference here,’” stated Bonanno. “Peter and Ann are amazing people who do amazing work and I stand in awe of them and their faith in God to provide. With people like that, you just want to help.”
Until the funds are available to finish the job, O’Connor and King are content with looking forward to enjoying all the things they’ve missed about Hesed House when they return. For King, it’s the library. “It won’t be home until the library is up,” he laughed.
What O’Connor looks forward to most is sitting on her front porch once again. “Everyone here talks to each other. You don’t get that in the suburbs. People there stay closed up in their houses. I’ll take living here any day over the suburbs. After the fire our neighbors said, ‘don’t let this discourage you. Please come back.’ We will be back.”
Support to help the efforts at Hesed House can be mailed to: Hesed House c/o of Unity Kitchen, Box 650, Syracuse, NY 113201. To find out more information about Operation Northern Comfort, please visit their website, http://operationnortherncomfort.org