(This is the eighth in a series detailing the 15 programs receiving United Way of Bradley County grants made possible through the Bradley Memorial Health Endowment Fund)
Ocoee Outreach has helped hundreds of residents of Cleveland and Bradley County over the past decade with home repairs and renovations.
A grant to the organization made possible by United Way of Bradley County through the Bradley Memorial Health Endowment Fund will help the group not only assist several individuals and families this summer, but will meet the needs of a very distinct populace.
“This will allow us to target what we feel is a priority, and that is applicants who have some type of documented medical disability,” said Randy Bonner, executive director for Ocoee Outreach.
“We help people in need, and that does include those with disabilities, but this grant will allow us to focus specifically for those situations.”
Twenty families will be targeted through this specific grant, he explained. The work on these homes will coincide with the other projects Ocoee Outreach will be working on this summer.
Ocoee Outreach began in 1996 with two people from North Cleveland Baptist Church — Michelle McCluskey and Steve Roper — spearheading the project.
The program eventually closed in 1999 as “the Lord moved them on to other opportunities, so it became dormant for about a year.”
He said the Bradley Baptist Association then brought the organization under its umbrella, and had Bonner join the staff with duties that included heading the Ocoee Outreach program.
“We rebirthed it in 2001 and it's been in its present state for the last 10 years, or the last 11 summers,” Bonner said.
Ocoee Outreach is a community ministry that provides free home repair to low-income home owners living in Southeast Tennessee.
“It is primarily a summer program where we help with these repairs, though we have done some projects throughout the year,” Bonner said, adding that the program is usually an intense eight-week series of projects in June and July.
Last year, Bonner said 102 home repair projects were performed by Ocoee Outreach and its volunteers.
“We have volunteers here in our own community who work with us, as well as many mission groups who come to our area for the purpose of helping this ministry,” Bonner said. “Those church groups come in for a week, and we facilitate their mission trip for them.”
While many are admittedly not skilled in construction, there are those who work with the program who are, and provide supervisory support to the program.
Bonner said Matt Polier and Raymond Kendrick serve as staff construction supervisors, at times separately overseeing as many as five house projects a week.
“We also have about 300 support volunteers who work alongside about 1,200 volunteers who come in from different areas, so it is a mixture of all of them coming together and working toward a common cause,” he said.
Ocoee Outreach receives about 200 applications a year for home repair, and they try their best to work with as many as possible, but have to prioritize those applicants due to the amount of resources available.
“We have to prioritize by income … the average of our recipient families is around $13,000 a year, which is well below the federal poverty level,” he said.
Other factors include whether there are children in the family, the age of the recipients and if the work that needs to be performed matches to resources available and volunteer skill levels.
Bonner said many of those who are helped are seniors or single parents.
“We have also run into several of these seniors who are raising their grandchildren because mom or dad is not around,” he noted.
The Ocoee Outreach director said the recipients of assistance are so thankful, and that some actually try to get involved in the repairs, if not get involved with the volunteers in other ways. Some bake cookies for the volunteers or try to feed them as best they can, and one even donated a 1983 Cadillac which was a fixture in his back yard to Ocoee Outreach.
“One of the other facets of the program is that our volunteers become very special to the recipients as people, not just builders,” Bonner said. “We feel that while we are repairing homes, we are also building relationships with the home owner and family.
“Our volunteers often sit down and listen to the stories from the families. Some are veterans and they have really not had anyone to tell their stories to, and our volunteers love to hear from these very special people,” Bonner said.
Matt Ryerson, vice president of Community Investment Strategies for United Way of Bradley County, said he appreciates this added element of the program.
“Ocoee Outreach is certainly about the physical acts of repairing and building that the organization does, but also about the building of relationships and how these people so desperate for others to be a part of the lives are touched by the volunteers,” he said.
Bonner said he is very thankful the United Way grant is helping the organization pinpoint services for these special people.
“One, they have a home that is in bad shape, and two, that challenge is being doubled because they already have a medical condition that is making it worse for them, so this grant is allowing us to target 20 families and make that home more livable for that individual as well as the family,” he said.
Assessments on potential homes to receive repairs will be performed in April.
“This program is exciting in that it addresses one of our most core human needs -— safe and affordable housing,” said Ryerson. “We are very pleased to be working with Ocoee Outreach to provide this service.”
To find out more about the Ocoee Outreach program, contact Bonner at 476-5493, or go to the Ocoee Outreach website at www.ocoeeoutreach.org. You can also visit the Ocoee Outreach fan page on Facebook.