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Volunteer steers organization that repairs homes for elderly

Thursday, January 10, 2002

By L.A. Johnson, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Last of six profiles
Ann Billak believes she's the least likely person to oversee a home improvement program for low-income elderly homeowners.

Ann Billak, left, has served as president of Rebuilding Together with Christmas in April Pittsburgh for nine years. Last month, she previewed the Hill District home of Stella Ellison for inclusion in the program and discussed repairs with her and her son Mark. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

"I am, without a doubt, the most mechanically challenged person," said Billak, 43, of Upper St. Clair.

"I can paint and clean," she said, then laughed and quickly revised her statement. "I can clean and do yard work. I don't want to insult the painters' union."

However, through her volunteer efforts as president of Rebuilding Together with Christmas in April Pittsburgh, 270 homes and 13 community centers have received $2.9 million worth of major repairs and improvements at no cost to the property owner.

For her nine years of dedication to the program, Billak is being honored as one of six Community Champions receiving a Jefferson Award, considered the Nobel Prize of volunteering.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, AT&T Broadband and Eat'n Park, with help from the United Way, sponsor Community Champions, a program of the national Jefferson Awards. The public and workers in the nonprofit sector nominated the 50 volunteers featured in public service ads last year in the PG and on AT&T cable stations.

On Jan. 24 at 7 p.m., the awardees will receive a medallion and $1,000 for the nonprofit organization of their choice at a free public reception and ceremony at Carnegie Music Hall, Oakland.

Previous profiles

Josephine Guy

Erin Ebeck

Katie DiPerna

Karen Payne

Jack Bosley

Jefferson Award winners making a world of difference by volunteering

Kaufmann's is donating $1,000 to Christmas in April on behalf of Ann Billak.

"I was really surprised," said Billak, public relations director for the Master Builders' Association of Western Pennsylvania Inc. "It's a team effort, so there's not one person who's going to make or break it, but I'm very honored."

Billak attended an informational meeting about Christmas in April USA in October 1992 to scout charitable opportunities for the Master Builders' Association and wound up being a volunteer herself.

She wasn't supposed to be president that first year, but when no one else could fill the job, she stepped in. She's held the post ever since -- juggling it along with her full-time job and caring for her husband, John, and children, Rachel, 12, and Alex, 10.

"It's the best thing I've ever done," said Billak, an Erie native. "It's fun and it's rewarding."

Working with elderly people always has been a natural fit because longevity runs in her family, and elderly people have surrounded her all her life. Her grandmother is 95.

Billak, a Penn State graduate with a journalism/public relations degree, also likes teaming up with folks in the skilled trades. Last month, Billak and William Waterkotte, director of organizing for the Western Pennsylvania Regional District Council of Carpenters, visited the homes of some seniors who may have home repairs done through the program. More than 100 homes were previewed, but only 30 to 40 are chosen.

They recently previewed Mary Lou Croom's Hill District home. Billak operated with the kindness of a kindergarten teacher and the well-oiled self-assurance of a politician. With her short dark-blond hair in a pixie cut, and wearing a white turtleneck, short black jacket and black pants, she resembled a flight attendant.

"If you don't mind showing us some of the things that need done," she said.

"Maybe you could look at that porch," Croom told them.

Billak was warm, with a soft-spoken determination. She went quietly about business, scanning everything and questioning the condition of each stairway, wall, light and plumbing fixture, the roof and the basement, as they worked their way through the house.

Waterkotte provided the technical assistance to gauge the urgency of repairs and whether needed repairs were ones the program could accomplish. Billak put the homeowner at ease, explaining the program and talking with her.

She learned that Croom's husband died in 1993, a few years after they'd moved in, and that she just hasn't been able to do all the home improvement projects they'd planned.

At the end of the preview, Billak and Waterkotte had a good idea of what work needed to be done, including repairs to windows, light fixtures, stair railings inside and outside and a cleaning-out of the basement. The porch, which is pulling away from the house, was the most serious problem. It was so serious, in fact, that they planned to have someone look at it long before the April work date.

"I appreciate you letting us come into your home," Billak said. "If you think of anything else that needs to be done, you have our number."

There is a great need for the work Rebuilding Together with Christmas in April Pittsburgh does because of Allegheny County's large elderly population and old housing stock, she said.

Billak, who volunteers a minimum of 20 hours per week, also stressed that the program isn't all her, but a coalition of hundreds of people including the Master Builders' Association, skilled trades people, social service agencies, corporations and their employee volunteers.

"Her enthusiasm is contagious," said Ray Coll, president of Cloverleaf Contracting Inc. in Baldwin. "We're all there because Ann's there. It's something she wants to do, and we want to work with her."

Those who know Billak said her positive attitude and persistence have kept the program alive all these years.

"She ... works to do whatever it takes, always giving credit to other people, which is one of the true marks of a great leader," said Patricia Riley Johnson, national president and CEO of Rebuilding Together with Christmas in April in Washington, D.C.

"Ann has the ability to motivate people to chip in and do their part," said Kathleen Bunk of the Allegheny County's Area Agency on Aging. "She's a sweet talker, and she's able to convince people that the need is there."

The program's mission has expanded since it began. The focus now is home safety modifications for the elderly. Year-round, the group will look to see what kind of stair treads, grab bars, railings and other safety features a homeowner might need, and still do the annual major home repair projects on 30 to 40 select homes that last Saturday in April.

"These people are so gracious and so lovely and so overwhelmed when we come that day with an army of 50 people to help them," Billak said. "Everybody is so happy, and the volunteers get as much or more out of this than the homeowners."

Kaufmann's is donating $1,000 to Christmas in April on behalf of Ann Billak.

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