It Takes A Community: Vernon, Indoor Plumbing Rehabilitation client

No running water.
No bathroom.
No electricity.

Vernon Gilbert spent nearly seven decades living under these conditions. Now, thanks to dozens of helping hands in the Mountain Valley community and TAP’s Indoor Plumbing Rehabilitation (IPR) program, he’s living comfortably in a brand new home.

Nicknamed “Koonny Frog” as a child because of his fondness for playing with frogs, Vernon grew up with his four siblings in a two-room wheatpacking house built in the 1930s. His family heated it using a wood stove in the bedroom, kept food cold in coolers, filled water jugs at a neighbor’s house, and used an outhouse. Despite these inconveniences, Vernon remained in the house until late 2016, when he fell while going outside to use the restroom.

That’s when friends and neighbors decided that Vernon, now 70, shouldn’t be chopping wood to stay warm or filling and transporting 30 milk jugs to have water. A friend, Rick Carter, heard about TAP’s IPR program and called to tell Vernon’s story. “Rick was always saying that we ought to get together to do something for Vernon because he was always doing for the neighborhood…Some of the people didn’t have any idea the conditions he was living in…when they saw the conditions he was living in, [they] couldn’t hardly believe it,” explained Vance Johnson, Vernon’s neighbor who, along with his wife Gayle, was instrumental in the project’s coordination.

Everyone agreed it was time for their friend Koonny Frog to have a new home. There was just one problem: Vernon’s house was so dilapidated that it wasn’t feasible to simply add indoor plumbing. Our IPR program would have to take the unusual step of constructing a new house, and program guidelines placed hefty constraints on the planned replacement. The community swung into action. Neighbors Jesse and Lucile Shelton donated land for the new house’s site. Rick Carter’s brother Mike came out of retirement to act as the project’s general contractor, using his expertise to negotiate lower materials costs.

Community members donated furniture and volunteered to work on the construction crew. A crowd-funding campaign raised thousands of dollars, allowing Vernon to relocate to safer housing immediately. The remaining money was used to include items in his new house that IPR money couldn’t pay for. Vernon’s new 758-square-foot, two-bedroom, two-bathroom house was completed in June 2017, and he was given the keys in a ceremony that allowed him to thank the community that supported him. “I don’t have to worry about getting wood. I don’t have to worry about going to get ice, toting water up the hill. All that stuff,” he noted, ever grateful.

Now he is enjoying his new amenities, including solar panels and net metering that allow unused power to be returned to the grid and reimbursed by the power company. For someone whose income consists of very little from Social Security and who used to spend $200 per month on ice to refrigerate food in coolers, the savings add up. When asked about his favorite part of his new home, Vernon immediately got up to show off the room that houses his “jukebox” and his collection of bluegrass CDs. A large photo of the old wheatpacking house hangs in the living room. Never one to stray far from his roots, Koonny Frog can still be found around IT TAKES A COMMUNITY Vernon, Indoor Plumbing Rehabilitation client Vernon shares one of his many family photo albums with Liz, a TAP employee. Vernon and Vance, his neighbor, talk outside of Vernon’s home.

As of July 2018, Vernon will have lived one full year in his new home. town helping his neighbors with anything and everything. And they have been busy teaching him how to use modern conveniences. “I’ve had a couple tears come to my eyes because of the community, the support that he has around him,” said IPR program manager Liz Puckett. “You know, you take a man that’s never operated an oven or a stove or a washer or dryer and has never had any of those necessities that we take for granted… It was touching to see this older gentleman that’s never had anything to all the people [teaching] him how to wash clothes, how to dry his clothes, how to fix the thermostat correctly. They just took pride in him. They put him under their wing and guided him.”

 

Click here to find out more about the Indoor Plumbing and Rehab program at TAP.