How a spirit of volunteerism is building support for Fort Wayne's most vulnerable residents

The city of Fort Wayne is on the rise, and it often makes national lists of the most affordable places to own a home.

But what happens when you own a home, and can’t afford to repair it or aren’t physically able to make repairs? Who do you call when you need help and government or social programs don’t apply to your situation?

NeighborLink Fort Wayne's Andrew HoffmanAs Executive Direct of NeighborLink Fort Wayne, Andrew Hoffman, spends a lot of time thinking about these questions and working with his team of staff and volunteers to develop creative solutions in Fort Wayne's neighborhoods.

Over the years, he's learned that it takes a village to ensure that the most vulnerable neighbors in cities are safe and comfortable in their homes.

With this in mind, volunteers at NeighborLink help hundreds of senior citizens, people with disabilities, low-income families, and people facing challenging life circumstances accomplish tangible home repair projects every year. 

It's NeighborLink's desire to make as many connections as possible and support volunteer activity city-wide by providing training, resources, and organization. And there is no shortage of need in Fort Wayne, Hoffman says.

Currently, NeighborLink has about 500 projects waiting to be matched with willing volunteers.

Before he was at the helm of the organization, he was in the trenches as a volunteer himself. While the situations he encountered were heart-breaking at times, he says they helped him realize the extent of needs that go unmet in Fort Wayne on a regular basis.

“I started off as a volunteer, taking on projects and really getting exposed to neighborhoods and people dealing with vulnerabilities that were beyond their ability to meet them and beyond the existing social service structure,” Hoffman says. 

It was these experiences that drove him to help other local residents identify and meet their neighbor's needs as well.

He says one thing that some residents take for granted is that, many times, the residents NeighborLink serves are people who have worked and supported themselves for years. They produced, saved, and were contributing members of society. But at some point, their life circumstances changed, and they lost their ability to be self-sufficient. Maybe they lost their savings due to an illness. Or maybe they depend on social security, a disability income, or a modest pension, which only supports their basic needs. This leaves them in need of NeighborLink's services.

Oftentimes, the elderly are hit the hardest, Hoffman explains. The greater the average age of the resident, the greater the need for help.
 NeighborLink Fort Wayne volunteers paint siding.

In the event something goes wrong with the house, the most at-risk residents—who tend to be older and living on a fixed income—feel the pinch. 

“The roof is going to leak,” he says. “The hot water heater will go out or die eventually, and if you don't have a nest egg (of savings) or family who can bail you out, you really don't have a lot of options.”  

Further complicating matters are the guidelines for the government’s grant programs. For example, federally-funded Community Development Block Grant dollars help provide funding for low-to-moderate income homeowners to rehabilitate their homes, address health and safety hazards, and lower energy consumption. NeighborLink has received CDBG grant dollars over the years. But according to Hoffman, the program still leaves some gaps to be filled because sometimes residents do not income-qualify.

And he says the City of Fort Wayne currently manages a loan forgiveness program for those able to qualify and commit to a repayment plan. However, the majority of those seeking assistance via NeighborLink are not in a  position to take on a loan, even if it is a zero-interest one. 

That's where volunteers with NeighborLink can make the greatest impact, he explains.

While Fort Wayne is often thought of as a generous city, with hundreds of individuals, churches, businesses, civic groups that want to engage with the community in a meaningful way, sometimes these groups just need to be made aware of opportunities to serve their neighbors.

Once they have the information and tools, they can execute and positively impact neighborhoods, Hoffman says. Oftentimes, NeighborLink helps humanize difficult situations, too, by putting faces with names and building community across the city.

NeighborLink volunteers help Kathleen Caudill get her home up to code.Take Southside resident, Kathleen Caudill, for example. When NeighborLink first met her, her home was in poor condition with numerous code violations. A church youth group was looking for a project, but the scope of the work was beyond their abilities, Hoffman says.

NeighborLink was able to step in and offer some grant money, but the repairs amounted to $12,800 and they were $3,800 shy of meeting that need, after applying for $7,500 in CDBG funding towards the project. So they generated a crowdfunding campaign to raise the extra funds, and the community responded in a positive way. Hoffman says they were able to raise more than $4,000 in less than two days, which fully funded the project.

He believes the project was so successful “because there was a social connection there," he explains.

"Kathleen worked as a custodian at Bishop Luers High School for some time," he says. "She was well-liked, and when people saw the campaign, they said, 'I know I can help.' And they delivered.”

Hoffman says as the city and its neighborhoods evolve, engaging in projects that help people like Caudill can be powerful catalysts for change in Fort Wayne and beyond. 

“What we hope is happening is that these volunteer experiences expose people to diverse situations,” he says. “And they cause you to really start thinking about changing your lifestyle to where you're more active, aware, and involved. When you go out of your comfort zone, you begin thinking about your neighborhood differently and our community as a whole.” 

Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a Fort Wayne-based writer. A 2007 graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. In the past 12 years she has worked in journalism, public relations, marketing, and digital media. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.
Signup for Email Alerts