Casey Heinlein, Director of Operations and Community Engagement for the REACH program, describes REACH as an impact program whose mission is to “reach together with the people of Roanoke to restore hope, alleviate loneliness, and empower individuals by bringing folks together to transform homes, lives, and entire communities.”
“One of the ways we are able to fulfill this mission is by reclaiming abandoned homes in Southeast Roanoke,” said Heinlein. “We bring volunteers from all over the country to transform these houses, turning them into homes by renovating and rebuilding them in order to work toward creating a thriving community.”
Heinlein says the week of July 9 was very special to those at REACH— over 50 people were serving the community by working on two REACH houses, one on Edmund Avenue in Northeast Roanoke, in the vicinity of Thrasher Park; the other on Stewart Avenue in Southeast, near the Salvation Army.
A team of youth and adults, called “REACHers,” from Greenville United Methodist Church in Greenville (near Staunton) worked on the Edmund Avenue home, putting the finishing touches on a house they first worked on back in February.
The REACHers also completed other mission work in the Roanoke area during the week, serving at the Rescue Mission in the Thrift Shop as well as prepping and serving meals. They volunteered with the Roanoke Community Garden Association, the Christian Soldiers Food Bank, and worked with neighborhood children in the Community Outreach Program, in addition to the construction work with the Abandoned Homes Project.
The YES (Youth Exalting the Savior) group came from churches in the Chesapeake area to partner with REACH on the Stewart Avenue home, which is almost ready for occupancy.
Heinlein says this home is the REACH program’s “first ever reclaimed abandoned home.”
Heinlein is a graduate of Emory and Henry University where she double majored in Civic Innovation and Religious Studies, basically combining non-profit management, community development, and conflict resolution studies—the perfect background for her job at REACH.
She started out as a REACHer in 2011, became a junior intern in the program in 2013, worked as an intern another year and now she is back full-time thanks to Pastor Tim Dayton, founder of the REACH in Roanoke program.
When she was writing her undergraduate thesis, she contacted Dayton for assistance with her research. She came to Roanoke to interview him, but instead he turned the tables and interviewed her, eventually asking, “Do you want a job after college?”
Greenville UMC’s Youth Leader Mary Alford and her group were building raised flower beds and a small patio, painting, and putting some finishing touches on the Edmund Avenue home. The Greenville group has been working with REACH for six or seven years and worked on this particular home previously building the front porch and roof and tearing out walls.
Alford said that she started with REACH when her daughters were in middle school– they are now in their 20s.
Asked why they leave their own communities to work on mission projects, Alford says that with youth “you get their undivided attention when you have them together for a whole week,” away from the distractions of work, sports, and other scheduled or overscheduled parts of their lives.
Heather Kimble, working with her three sons, said that not only do the renovated homes help those who are moving in by providing affordable housing, they help “bring up the housing values of the entire neighborhood.”
Generally, REACHers are housed at First Christian Church in Roanoke but the group of 40 YES volunteers occupied that space so these REACHers set up at Greene Memorial UMC. They prepared their own meals or took advantage of special offers such as free slushies at 7-Eleven or free sandwiches at Chick-fil-A for the simple price of dressing up as cows. They also ate at the Eatwell Chili Shop, a staple in the southeast neighborhood.
The Edmund Avenue house, donated to REACH, is 556 square feet, with a kitchen/dining area, one bedroom and bath, a living room, and a mudroom room, with a single-parent family ready to move in.
The YES group was made up of 42 volunteers, ages 12 and up. Two churches from Chesapeake were represented, Joliff UMC from Suffolk, and three churches from the Prince George Cooperative Parish in the Petersburg area.
YES volunteer Bobby Allison, age 22 and a senior at Virginia Commonwealth University, says he has been involved in youth missions since he was 12 years old, “to serve the Lord.” He says that one reason for out-of-town projects is that “youth love road trips and look forward to them— going somewhere to do hard work— go figure.” He has worked on mission projects in Cherokee, in Jolo, W.Va., and on the Eastern Shore.
He especially likes the REACH philosophy of getting the community involved, inspiring local groups to step up when they see out-of-towners making an investment of their time in the community. “We are here for a greater purpose than just redoing homes.”
YES volunteer Christie Douglas has spent her time trimming boards, framing windows and doors, and installing baseboards. She says she likes helping people and doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty.
John Edwards, age 20 and a plumber and electrician by trade, is one of the volunteers with expertise. He has taught some of his skills to the other volunteers, while “doing the dangerous stuff” and more technical tasks himself.
His first mission trip was in middle school to “hang out with his friends.” Now he’s on mission trip nine. He says his purpose has evolved. Nowadays he “gets a feeling of satisfaction in helping someone who can’t afford to make repairs to their homes themselves.”
Pastor Dayton says the two-story Stewart Avenue home is triple the size of the one on Edmund, about 1,600 square feet. There are three bedrooms and a bath on the second level; a kitchen, bath, dining room, front room, utility room and mudroom room on the first level, and a basement.
Heinlein says the Stewart Avenue home was bought at auction. In the southeast area of Roanoke, one in 10 houses is abandoned. This home is in the neighborhood where REACH is headquartered.
In past years REACH has repaired and renovated homes, sometimes just a band-aid solution. Now they have decided to tackle the root of the problem, considering what it would look like to the community and individuals moving into a home to reclaim a home, restore it, and sell it back to the community. The proceeds from each abandoned house reclaimed and restored go toward the purchase of more abandoned homes.
The Stewart Avenue restoration has been over a year-long project. Now two more homes have been purchased on Dale Avenue.
Applications will be distributed for those interested in purchasing the Stewart Avenue home in coming days, most likely at the annual “I Love Southeast Festival,” on July 28.
The REACH projects are not just youth summer mission work— they have become year-round projects which involve countless volunteers.
“We’ve had at least one group, maybe 10 people or so, every week of the summer months, plus a few weekends,” said Heinlein. “We’ve also had groups from different colleges and universities work on the house during the spring and fall breaks as a part of our Alternative Breaks program. We also have individuals who volunteer throughout the year periodically.”
Heinlein says that REACH strives to “connect people to other people in the community.”