On-site with Operation Freedom, the North Texas rebuilding project that helps military veterans feel at home again.
It’s early on a crisp November morning, and cars are lined up along a quiet cul de sac in Arlington, Texas, just outside Dallas. Dozens of people are gathered in front of the last home on the street, Charles Powell’s home.
A United States Navy veteran, Powell lives in the four-bedroom beige and white ranch house with his wife, Alyssa, and five young daughters. He has a soft voice and a guarded smile, and is conscious of his appearance. Charles suffers from severe back injuries sustained during his military service, and advanced glaucoma. He is completely blind in one eye and partially blind in the other, and may eventually lose his eyesight entirely.
Powell, 44, appears before the crowd assembled in his yard wearing a dark blue athletic t-shirt with an oversized U.S. Navy emblem embroidered on it and faded blue jeans. One hand rests on his five-year-old daughter Gracie’s shoulder as she takes small, careful steps in her glittery black tutu, guiding her father in front of the crowd. In Powell’s other hand he holds a camouflage cane. His trim salt and pepper goatee frames his humble smile. “It’s unbelievable” he says, gleaming at the onlookers. “I am thankful for all the help.”
In a joint community service effort by mortgage company Ditech and Rebuilding Together Greater Dallas, a non-profit that aims to improve the quality, health and safety of housing and communities for low income homeowners, close to 35 volunteers signed up to help the Powell family repair their home today. The effort is part of Rebuilding Together Dallas’ Operation Freedom Project, an initiative that rebuilds and renovates homes for veterans and their families across North Texas between 9/11 and Veteran’s Day each year. . The work on the Powell home is possible thanks to a sizeable grant and volunteer support from Ditech Home Loan’s office in nearby Irving, Texas. Ditech has also supported efforts for two other initiatives, one in Concord, New Hampshire, and one in St. Paul, Minnesota.
“We do it because people need help,” Rebuilding Together Dallas executive director Dennis Luellen explains, and that is exactly what Powell says he needs. He recently spent eight weeks in The Waco Blind Rehabilitation Center in Waco, Texas, learning to read braille and training with a guide dog. It was on one of the drives to visit her husband that Alyssa caught the tail end of a radio show that mentioned Rebuilding Together Greater Dallas, and so she reached out.
Two of Alyssa and Charles’ daughters have serious challenges of their own. One has autism-style developmental disabilities and the other had her left temporal lobe removed due to seizures, which has led to memory loss. In the midst of Charles’ own disabilities, Alyssa has to shoulder much of the caregiving responsibility. “She has a lot on her plate and she hasn’t lost a step at all,” Charles says of his wife. Indeed, Alyssa has the warm smile and calm demeanor of someone who has handled life’s challenges with dignity and courage.
Seeing the Ditech volunteers take over their home is more than the Powells could have hoped for. They watch as people divide into three teams. A group of about 10 volunteers carrying ladders, paint buckets and rollers starts giving one of the Powell girls’ bedrooms a complete facelift.
Their chatter can be heard on the other side of windows that open onto the front lawn, where a second team is pulling weeds and shoveling old soil into a wheelbarrow before planting yellow and purple pansies, and snapdragons and dianthuses in various bursts of pink. Abree Grover is on flower duty. She feels a personal responsibility to help veterans since her father is one. “Any opportunity I have to give back to someone, I’m going to take it,” she says.
A third group of volunteers is fixing the back fence and adding a door that will give Charles direct access to the park across the street. The sound of power drills and hammers punctures the snippets of conversation. The old fence that was removed now sits along the mangled pile of branches and leaves that were trimmed from the tree hanging over the Powells’ roof. These small changes mean their house is now code compliant. They mean the Powells don’t have to worry about intruders breaking in or peeking into their backyard. They mean the family can feel proud of the home they’ve created over the last five years.
Adjusting to medical challenges has been a long and arduous journey for the whole Powell family. The glaucoma took a mental toll on Charles, who had to come to terms with his limitations and depend on others. “It’s relaxing to me, to go outside, cut the grass,” he says. “If I was stressed out, I’d find something to do, but it took a major adjustment.” Without his sight, simple tasks such as fixing the fence or helping around the house are impossible and it’s frustrating for Charles. Many volunteers, each with their own story, can relate. For 29-year-old Brett Warner it was a realization that we shouldn’t have to go it alone. “We are all going to have times when we are not able to do things,” he says. “It’s a human aspect to help each other out.”
Alyssa Powell is very accustomed to that vital human aspect, and she and Charles were both overcome with emotion at the sight of strangers donating their precious time to help the family, making impactful changes to the Powell’s lives that others might take for granted — that the Powells themselves might have taken for granted under different circumstances.
Alyssa says she looks forward to simple pleasures the most, like spending quality time in the backyard, creating visual memories for Charles so that when he loses his sight he has something special to hold on to. “This time is precious that we do have,” Alyssa says, “and I want to spend as much time with him as I can and with the kids and as a family.” She looks around the property