AMESBURY — Volunteers worked on the condominium until it glowed. When the Roof Over Head Collaborative recently handed over the keys to a local couple and their teenage son, it represented a milestone in the group's mission to provide homeless families in Greater Newburyport with transitional housing.
"It took a village to pull it together," said Kerri Perry, co-chairwoman of ROOF, a local, privately funded nonprofit organization. "I couldn't believe the good of others. I was shocked by what was accomplished by just asking."
In the days leading up to the move, volunteers spared no detail in the two-bedroom, 1,200-square-foot unit situated in a quiet neighborhood within walking distance to downtown Amesbury. Someone mounted a door to cover an open closet. Another ran out to buy blinds.
Newburyport resident Bill Abbott, 86, oversaw the weeklong renovation in 90-degree heat. Neighbors ordered pizza for everyone, while former ROOF Chairwoman Norma Beit and her husband, Harvey, planted flowers outside.
Items such as mattress pads, a vacuum cleaner, paper products and garbage bags came from local donors. Local Realtor Nancy Purcell, who closed on the property in mid-May, donated her commission to the cause.
"I don't think anybody anticipated having a property ready in this short period of time," said Michael Jones, president of the Institution for Savings, which contributed $50,000 to ROOF last year. "It seemed like everybody stepped up when it was needed most."
ROOF was founded in 2009 by a group of retired residents who were determined to help the nearly 150 children and 300 adults in the region who are homeless, according to the Salisbury-based human services organization Pettengill House.
Since Perry, an attorney, and Susanne Cameron, a housing and community development professional, were elected co-chairwomen in January, the effort to find properties to purchase or rent in Newburyport, Amesbury and Salisbury accelerated. ROOF intends to move two more families into rentals in the fall and will gradually add a mix of condominiums and rentals to its roster. The organization has so far raised $150,000.
In June, less than a month after the closing, Perry picked up the mother and the son at Knotty Pine Motel on Beach Road in Salisbury and drove them to their new home. The father, an unemployed construction worker and avid walker, footed the distance.
"It's absolutely wonderful, the whole entire program," said the mother who asked not to be named. "It saved our lives; it saved our family's life. I feel so blessed. I never thought it'd be possible to go from losing everything to being able to provide again."
Families are referred to ROOF by other social service organizations and have to undergo a rigorous assessment. Rent is based on income, and selected families also have to agree to budget counseling, professional improvement classes and other measures to take control of their lives. They can stay no longer than two years before they have to make room for a new family, Cameron said.
"It's a difficult conversation to have, to let them know that there are all these expectations on the line and that the organizations we're working with are watching closely," Cameron said. "They have to own it; otherwise, it's not for them."
"This is an opportunity to work with people from a holistic perspective," said Pam Wool, director of Community Services at Community Action Inc., in Haverhill, whose Amesbury branch coordinates the ROOF program. "It's really exciting to see people respond to people in need in the community. They appreciate that poverty is not just a quick fix."
For the family, things fell apart five months ago when the rent dramatically went up on their Newburyport apartment at the same time as their car died, the father lost his job, and the mother was displaced and forced to take a lesser-paying position. After four months of doubling up with friends, they checked into the Salisbury motel.
Despite all the comforts of their new home, where the family enjoyed homemade stuffed chicken breasts Monday night, they have their sights set on finding a permanent place to live.
Said the mother, "I want to spend the rest of my life giving back to these people."