Niagara Gazette — A small house on 16th Street with brown paint curling off its wood siding and the front steps rotting has sat vacant for years. Soon a group of young people searching for purpose will collectively breathe new air into the house and bring it back to life.
The Isaiah 61 Project, a nonprofit that trains underemployed and unemployed residents while rehabilitating houses to be sold to low-income families, announced last week that it will be taking on a second project house.
Dave Knoodle moved right next to the house on 16th Street with his wife Judith, who grew up here, in 2007.
Retired from the Army, Knoodle said the house has been empty since they moved in.
“It’s been that way since we got here,” he said.
Knoodle said he thinks the project — from the job training aspect to the positive momentum that renovating a vacant house can have on a neighborhood — is a great idea.
“It’s going to increase the value of the property,” he said. “It’s the only house on the street that’s that way.”
Last year the project bought its first house from the city. Since then the nonprofit and the city have worked together to identify houses they feel make good candidates for rehabilitation. The project and the city’s Community Development department — with the approval of the city’s planning board and city council — have established a list of houses that the project can buy for $500 whenever they feel prepared to take on another home.
Students of the program, their instructor from Niagara Orleans BOCES and a group of contractors who have volunteered their time and expertise to the organization – Mikellly Construction, H.W. Bryk & Sons Plumbing and Newman Electric – will soon descend on the house.
They will remove the things left from the previous owner, like the piano that still sits under a chandelier in an otherwise empty hallway, rip the old lath and plaster walls out and begin anew.
Dennis Luzak, the BOCES instructor for the program who has been helping folks learn the construction trades since the project started up last fall, is now on his third round of students.
On Friday morning while politicians and representatives from philanthropic organizations were identifying the house on 16th Street as the next on the Isaiah 61 list — and also announcing a $35,000 gift from Key Bank — he and seven students were at their first project house on Whitney Avenue covering bare-bones wooden studs with sheets of drywall.
Luzak said teaching people to build something, as opposed to simply working in the trades as he has for decades, has been extremely fulfilling.
He said the improvements to the houses are obvious, a difference that anyone in the neighborhood will notice at a quick glance. But, the thing that most people will not notice is the difference the program makes for the people who learn their trades by participating.
“What you’re not seeing is how we’re building the people that are involved in this program,” Luzak said. “I’ve had guys graduate and tell me how grateful they are to have this opportunity to provide for their kids.”
Luzak said he always found satisfaction in completing a construction job, but it doesn’t compare to the feeling he gets seeing a student earn a certificate from BOCES.
“I’m not building structures,” he said. “Once again, I’m building lives.”
And that feeling just can’t be matched, Luzak said.
“A house can’t give you a slap on the back,” he added.
Dominique George, 21, was one of the men with arms raised high, holding a sheet of drywall to the ceiling waiting for a compatriot to secure it with screws Friday morning.
George joined the program after a friend told him that there was a free program with a “great teacher” that could earn him a job in the trades.
“He teaches really well,” George said of Luzak. “If you need help he don’t mind taking time out of his day to stop and help you.”
George still plans to go to nursing school, but the hands-on experience he has gained through his participation in the program gives him options, he said.
“I like working with my hands and stuff,” George said.
So if nursing school doesn’t work out he has a leg up in entering the construction trades work force.
“That’s just why I want to do both,” George said. “If I don’t like that I can fall back on this.”
Jim Haid, the Isaiah 61 Project’s project manager, said the program focuses on giving training to the people looking for work and that has drawn interest from people all over the socio-economic scale.
“It’s a mix,” he said. “We have some students who have served time, but we also have college graduates.”
And though most people enter the program not knowing each other they quickly learn to work together, Haid said.
“For the most part they’re perfect strangers and now they learn to work as a team,” Haid said.
Back on 16th Street, neighbor Dave Knoodle said coming out of his home every morning and seeing the house next door fall further into disrepair has worn on him.
“It was depressing,” he said. “Especially in the wintertime when things are depressing enough, to have to look at that. It’s going to turn out good though.”
Knoodle said he is happy that of all the vacant houses in the city the Isaiah 61 Project choose the one that sits right next to his home.
“We’re glad to have them,” he said.Contact reporter Justin Sondel at 282-2311, ext. 2257