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Faith group helps East Austin woman to live in dignity

Michael Barnes, Out & About

Staff Writer
Austin 360

When she sat down at the hotel banquet table, Doris Roland received a double shock. She opened the printed program for the benefit dinner to find her own face smiling back. Also unexpected: On giant screens astride the hall's temporary stage, Roland's image appeared repeatedly.

Later, as guests of Interfaith Action of Central Texas listened to reports about the conditions they encountered as part of the group's Hands On Housing program, Roland nodded quietly. Then the charity's director, Tom Spencer, surprised Roland again by asking her to join him on stage. The retired food service worker, 75, approached the dais shyly. Without a prepared text, she spoke.

"The kitchen with holes in the roof that you heard about," she says. "That was mine. The kicked-in back door. Mine too."

Roland went on to speak fondly of the iACT staff and volunteers whom she welcomed back again and again.

"They know I care for them," she says. "They know that."

That warm spring evening, other guests were recognized — leaders in the affordable housing field — but what lingered was the memory of a radiant woman who allowed strangers into her 500-square-foot house across from Oakwood Cemetery. Strangers who revisited after the roof was repaired, the back door was replaced, the foundation was settled, the utilities were rewired, the porch was replaced, the hole in the bathroom floor was filled.

"People don't want to leave where they are," Roland says. "It's scary to leave. It doesn't matter what's wrong with the place, they want to stay."

Recently, the campaign to keep people in their homes — by doing rather than just talking — has benefited from joint efforts as Spencer's group has teamed with Meals on Wheels and More, Austin Area Urban League, Habitat for Humanity and similar outfits.

"Even the most secular among us would probably agree that home is a sacred thing," Spencer says. "By making these repairs we are genuinely restoring our homeowners' sense of hope, their pride of place and their sense of connection to the broader community. Yes, we are meeting a vital community need, but better still, we are meeting vital, grateful and warm-hearted people. Our homeowners give us as much as we give them."

San Antonio-born Roland, who moved to Austin 57 years ago, has worked all her life — and continues to do so. Her mother labored in the Fort Sam Houston laundry. Her husband, John Roland, worked at the University of Texas. She retired from the Austin State School after 29 years in its kitchens. Along the way, she helped raise three children, six grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.

By putting money aside month to month, she quickly paid for the board-and-batten house that cost $13,000. These days, it is lined with wood paneling and filled with comfy furniture, family trophies and reminders of her faith. She's been a member of Greater Love Baptist Church for 35 years and now coordinates its food pantry, for which she has been honored recently by the Rev. Isaac Grant Jr.

"It's a big job," she says. "But when you like something, it's small. When you have 30 volunteers, its a joy. And people are in need. They stand in line for two hours for food. I tell the volunteers, 'You don't talk down to anybody. You don't know why they are here or what took them to get here.'"

About five years ago, Roland decided to do something about the home where she often looks after four great-grandchildren.

"The house was just about run down," she says. "It's always leaked in there. My porch was just gone. This room was going this way and the bathroom was going the other way."

When Roland inquired at the Blackland Neighborhood Center about possible help, she received a couple of names. Hands on Housing coordinator Kathy Weiner responded right away.

"She started taking pictures of the house," Roland recalls. "When they came to fix the door, they found other things wrong. They said it might take a while. That's OK. I'm patient."

As Weiner's program grows, she can offer more services to clients.

"I come from the service industry, so that is how I refer to our applicants," she says. "We are providing a service. They are treated like clients and often, as in the case of Doris, evolve into family."

Roland's positive energy helped.

"From the beginning, I loved Doris," Weiner says. "Her uplifting personality, wisdom and down-to-earth, tell-it-like-it-is philosophy won me over immediately."

Roland felt similarly about Weiner, Spencer and the volunteers.

"I was right out there with the workers," she says. "I wrote their names down."

Amazingly, workers with iACT and other Central Texas groups often find their hardest job is convincing people — especially the aged — to accept help.

"A lot of folks are suspicious," Spencer says. "They are afraid people are trying to get homes away from them or that they may be condemned."

Roland has sensed that anxiety around her formerly all-black neighborhood.

"People have been beaten out of their homes when they get old and senile," she says.

One resident who lives not far from Roland proved an especially hard case for iACT.

"Her application said: 'outside house painting,'" Weiner says. "We were approaching the time of year when we paint 10 or so homes in one day. I went by and saw, yes indeed, she very much needs house painting! Paint peeling off, rotten siding — looking very bad indeed, but definitely a potential for us."

So Weiner knocked on the door.

"Before me was a stand-offish, very small, kind-eyed woman," Weiner says. "She barely cracked the door to talk to me, so I knew not to ask too much. I told her I was going to walk around and look some more, and then come visit again another day."

On the next stop, Weiner reported the news that a repair-and-paint team would take on the project.

"I asked if I could come inside and see if there were any things inside that I perhaps could help with," Weiner says. "She was very embarrassed and did not want me to see the conditions that she was living in. I told her there was no need, as I am not someone to be shocked or (to) judge someone."

The toilet was not working. There was no water service. No gas service.

"Even though she is very frail, she was hauling buckets of water in for her needs," Weiner reports. "With some donation funds, we were able to get her sewer line cleared, water working, hot water heater going. There is still much more work I would like to do there."

Why wouldn't this client ask for help? Weiner suggests distrust and pride but also not knowing where to turn.

Roland recognizes the obstacles and knows how she might coax Weiner's more recent, reluctant client.

"I would tell them what they've done for me," she says. "And how close we've really become and how many people I've got to know I hadn't known."

Contact Michael Barnes at mbarnes@statesman.com or 445-3647.