Bob Sharpe has volunteered with Rebuilding Together Anne Arundel County since day one.
It was April 27, 1991, when he and a group of 30 volunteers spent 14 hours renovating the home of an elderly disabled man in Arnold, the first project for the local chapter of the national organization.
Twenty-three years, 530 homes and tens of thousands of volunteer hours later, Sharpe was voted this month as Tradesperson of the Year in the organization's nationwide contest, sponsored by Lowe's, HGTV and the DIY Network.
"Bob is invaluable. He's been involved since the very beginning, and he's had an active role in the scope of every project," said Barbara Cupp, executive director of Rebuilding Together Anne Arundel County. "Everyone loves working with him."
The organization is one of more than 200 chapters throughout the country, and works to aid low-income, elderly or military veteran homeowners whose homes have fallen into disrepair or are in need of wheelchair accessibility. The group dispatches volunteers to spend a day performing thousands of dollars' worth of renovations at no cost to the homeowner.
Sharpe, a retired high school math teacher and owner of a construction company, has served as the technical expert and supervisor on every project for the past two decades.
"The way I look at it, I'm only one or two illnesses or one or two financial setbacks away from being in the same situation that most of our clientele are," said Sharpe, who has also volunteered with the Kiwanis Club of Crofton for nearly 20 years.
"None of us has got the wherewithal to survive a major catastrophe on our own, and I'd like to think that if I was in that position, somebody would come help me too."
For a man who has amassed an impressive record of serving others, Sharpe got a surprisingly late start in volunteering. He acknowledges that he rarely considered volunteer work until a chance encounter during a return to his hometown in the coal-mining area of northeast Pennsylvania for a high school reunion. Sharpe was proudly detailing his personal and professional accomplishments to a former teacher when she delivered a revelation that would shape the next three decades of his life.
"She just looked at me and said, 'You know, you're really taking care of things as far as your family and yourself are concerned; now what have you done for others? How have you helped those who aren't as fortunate as you?' " he recalled. "And I just looked at her and said, 'You got me. I have no answer for you.' "
Soon after, he a colleague asked if Sharpe would lend his contracting skills to Rebuilding Together's first project in Anne Arundel County. What Sharpe thought would be one day of service became a defining moment in his life and, through ensuing work, the lives of hundreds of county residents.
"We were working on that home from 7 a.m. until late that night, and as long as it was and as tired as we all were, when we got done and I saw the joy on the homeowner's face at what we'd accomplished, I thought, 'You know, this is the best day I've spent in a long time,' " he said.
Sharpe was hooked, and he took on greater responsibilities and duties within the organization with each passing year. Today, he spends an estimated 20 hours each month volunteering for Rebuilding Together and serving as vice president of its Anne Arundel County executive board.
"There's not a lot businessmen that will take time to attend meetings on Monday nights and then go out on weekends and take the lead on a project that they're going to make nothing from," said fellow board member Stephen Short. "He's not getting anything in return, other than satisfaction that he's helping someone in the community."
As Sharpe's commitment to the organization has deepened, so too has his appreciation for the homeowners he meets.
Many of the houses he's called to have been in such bad shape that he thought they'd be better off tearing down and starting over. But he learned that for many homeowners, their house is where they have lived all their lives — where they were raised, got married and watched their children grow up.
"I had an elderly woman tell me one time, 'As bad as this house is, I've been here most of my life. … I look at the house as a big box where I keep all my memories.' "
Sharpe recently helped Rebuilding Together become a licensed state contractor, which will allow the organization to take on grant-funded projects through the county's housing commission, according to Cupp.
After years of decline in corporate sponsorships and donations, the designation will allow Rebuilding Together to work on homes year-round without financial restrictions. More work, Sharpe said, means more opportunities for first-time volunteers.
"I want people to consider being motivated the way I was, by someone who said, 'You know, you've done a lot for yourself; now what have you done for others?' " he said.