CHAMPION FOR THE NEEDY WEST COUNTY--Clarksville * Highland * Gelnelg * Lisbon


Howard County isn't known for homelessness or dilapidated housing, and if Neil Gaffney can help it, it never will be.

Mr. Gaffney, a Glenelg resident for 10 years, has organized construction workers, teen-agers and professionals to refurbish homes of the disadvantaged or handicapped and has rallied local churches to house those who have no homes to begin with.

"He has a soft-spoken way of asking for help that cannot be turned down," said County Executive Charles I. Ecker in his letter nominating Mr. Gaffney for a President's Volunteer Action Award.

The honor was known as the "Points of Light Award," after then-President George Bush's "1,000 Points of Light" call for volunteerism, but has been changed back to its original name by the Clinton administration. The program was created in 1982 to honor outstanding community service by individuals, families, groups and organizations, said Karen Barnes, spokeswoman for the Points of Lights Foundation.

Mr. Gaffney, 46, was one of 4,000 people across the country who were nominated this year. Next month, the foundation will select 22 who will receive the awards.

"Putting people back on the road to self-reliance," is one of Mr. Gaffney's desires, according to his nomination form.

To that end, he serves as president and founding board member of the Howard County chapter of Christmas in April, which brings volunteers together to repair homes, and he is president of Churches Concerned for the Homeless, an ecumenical coalition of churches that sponsor homeless families and individuals.

But in doing that, he may be risking some of his own economic security. "I really enjoy doing what I'm doing. I very much want the business to work, so I can continue what I'm doing," Mr. Gaffney said of his two home-based businesses. One, AccessAbility Inc., provides consulting on improving access for the handicapped, and the other, Emerald Systems Inc., deals with such environmental areas as water and air filtration.

Mr. Gaffney and his wife, Mary Lou, have three children, Heather, who runs a day care center; Laurel, a student at Pennsylvania State University, and Dan, a student at Glenelg High School.

He said that until August 1990, "work and family were the things that monopolized my time -- I really couldn't do anything else."

It was then than he left a management job at United Technologies Corp. in Gaithersburg and a 12-year career working with radar systems.

A month later he joined Churches Concerned for the Homeless, and his volunteer work has grown ever since.

"Since the first meeting, he has just jumped in and helped us. He was instrumental in us getting our first house," said Debbie Rhoad, the group's first president.

Among other things, Mr. Gaffney helped the group take advantage of a state loan program and completed a 2-inch thick application form.

Now the group has housed three families, and is ready for a fourth. The group will likely launch a single men's program in the fall, Mr. Gaffney said.

Also under his leadership, Christmas in April-Howard County attracted more than 700 volunteers who fixed up 26 homes during its first April effort last year.

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