Lorraine Walther's house teemed with people this past weekend. Some were scraping paint off of her second-story windowsills, others were sanding putty on her kitchen floor and still more were installing new gutters around the roof.

And as the sunny morning progressed, all the renovations that Walther had wanted for months were quickly completed.

Walther's was one of 32 Howard County homes that were renovated as part of Saturday's sixth annual Christmas in April, a day when volunteer groups worked on improving the safety and independence of low-income homeowners.

"It's unbelievable how many people came out to do all this work," the 82-year-old Walther said. "It makes them happy to work for elderly people, and I appreciate what they're doing for my house."

More than 1,000 volunteers came out for the rebuilding day, coordinated by Christmas in April -- Howard County, a nonprofit organization that is part of a national group. Howard County's workers joined almost 140,000 volunteers who worked with more than 165 programs in 47 states on Saturday.

At Walther's house, the nearly 40 volunteers were from Long & Foster in Columbia, alumni of the fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha, Prosperity Mortgage and local high schools. Susan McKillip of Long & Foster was a co-captain of the group.

In the span of that one day, they laid a new kitchen floor, replaced support columns on Walther's front porch, caulked the bathtub, replaced bathroom faucets, secured stairway rails, installed two windows and painted the windowsills, kitchen, breakfast nook, a bedroom and the dining room.

"This may seem like [a lot]," McKillip said, "but this is considered a medium-size job by Christmas in April."

She said the one-day aspect of the project really drew the volunteers. "Coordinating a large effort like this is hard to do over a longer time period," she said, indicating it's tough for people in her profession to find the right time. "For real estate agents, weekends are their bread and butter."

Jason Russell, an 11th-grader at Howard High School, came out to fulfill his monthly service requirement for the National Honor Society. Russell, 16, leaned out of a second-story window and scraped paint off the windowsill.

Calvin Austin from Alpha Phi Alpha paused underneath Russell, surveying his work. "You know what you're doing?" Austin called up to Russell.

"Yeah," Russell yelled back. "They showed me how."

"It's good to see young people doing hard work," Austin said.

Russell's instructors were three professional contractors -- the owners of the Randallstown firm Vernon & Bob's and Dutch Bageant from Bageant Homes in Dayton -- who came out to help McKillip coordinate the effort.

"They direct us how to do the big jobs, like building a new kitchen floor," she said.

McKillip said the the day's primary goals were to make Walther's house safer, warmer and drier. "With this in mind, we went through her wish list, assessed the house and then decided what jobs had priority.

"And she seems pleased with our work. We want her to be comfortable," McKillip said.

"It's a very scary thing when you see 40 people invading your house, moving your furniture, making noise," she said.

Walther, who has lived in her house for nearly 50 years, said she used to be able to take care of house repairs herself, but it had recently become too difficult. "I broke my hip in October," she said. "I healed fast, but I'm not the same now, you know?

"And I don't want to make my kids come out all the time to take care of the house," Walther said. "They're busy themselves. So this is a very nice thing."

About 50 homeowners submitted applications asking for Christmas in April's help with home repairs. Board members visited the houses to see if it was feasible to complete the proposed work in one day. Then, after the 32 houses were chosen, house captains chose their projects. For each house chosen, volunteer groups had to commit a minimum of $2,000. Jeff Harris, president of Howard County's Christmas in April effort, said there were enough volunteer groups to do all the work.

McKillip said the three groups who worked on Walther's house as well as individual contributors donated money for the repairs.

"Many of the volunteers here also wrote checks," she said.

In Columbia, about 30 volunteers worked on Mary Knight's townhouse. Furniture, major kitchen appliances and boxes were strewn all over Knight's front lawn as volunteers repaired her kitchen floor. One volunteer sat with Knight and helped her sort old mail and papers.

"All this work is beyond my expectation," said Knight, a grandmother of seven who refused to give her age. "The miraculous part of it is that things that I thought couldn't be done in one day are getting done, like the kitchen floor."

Volunteers from St. John's Episcopal Church, Ellicott City Rotary and Town Center Rotary worked to replace Knight's kitchen floor, install a new kitchen counter, replace siding and window trim, paint a few rooms and install a door, ceiling fan, tub faucets and a floor in the family room, among other things.

Bill Shiftlet, the senior minister at St. John's who has been involved in the program for four years, said the secret of success was that people make a one-day commitment.

"You can get people together for one day. People love to volunteer for one day. But long volunteer projects are hard to coordinate with a large group of people," he said.

"And the one-day aspect of this project gives an added challenge to the volunteers to do good work in a short time," he said. "There's definitely no wasting of time."

Pub Date: 4/29/97

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