In Kenya, a “Harambee” is a community event designed to raise money for an ill or otherwise needy person, or for a situation, such as a school in need of repair. As a noun or an exclamation it is also used as a Swahili rallying cry urging the community to “get organized and work together around a common goal.”

Hoping for a Harambee

“Fixin’ It Up” by Yolanda D. White, photos Kurt Johnson

Repairing your house can be a daunting task. Finding just the right contractor, colors, and concrete can be akin to finding an albino earthworm in a moon-bathing convention. But for YMCA’s Raphael Garcia, making sure broken homes get fixed up is his business. Via his “Y” vehicle, the Community Development Center (CDC), Garcia oversees and manages three programs designed to assist low-income homeowners by providing them, in some cases with matching grants to improve their dwellings.

Garcia has a special feeling for the hammer-swinging part of improving the community. “I’ve been a carpenter my whole life,” he explained. “It’s not the highest paying job by far, but it is something to do in my community for people who really need it.”

The Neighborhood Improvement Program (NIP) uses federal funds to repair eligible owner-occupied houses with city code violations, lead hazards and health and safety concerns. The YMCA hopes that rehabilitating homes will improve the city’s housing stock and property values. While repairs are authorized by the Department of Neighborhood Services (DNS), anyone who meets homeowner, federal income and property guidelines is eligible to apply. On the average, rehabilitating homes costs about $25,000 per property. Forty-seven projects have been completed in the last two years, during Garcia’s stint at the helm of the YMCA’s program.

The Paint Up/Fix Up (PUFU) and the Minor Home Repair (MHR) programs provided more than 50 homeowners with the opportunity to improve their properties. Homeowners invested $3.47 of their own money for each $1 of grant funds they received.

As for Garcia’s role as project manager, there are no typical days in coordinating three huge programs like these. There are far more applicants than grants and more paperwork than he cares to sift through, but he does it, with the ultimate goal of getting out in the community and making sure the repairs make living conditions better.

It’s not always easy to find the right people for the job. “Just because someone is licensed and bonded doesn’t make them a good contractor,” Garcia laughed.

And he should know, as a union contractor. His handywork is on display in the Beerline condominiums by the river.

“When we are done, the best part of my job is the happiness and gratitude of the people who get the job done,” commented Garcia.

“It’s definitely not about the money, it just feels good.”

For applications or for more information, call 414-374-9441.


Riverwest Currents online edition – April, 2006