By Bill Graham
Special to The Sylva Herald
Like her parents before her, Margie Bishop has spent her life in the shadow of Rocky Face Mountain, on Wayehutta Creek near Cullowhee.
Now 76, she raised four children in the community, and later moved into the snug, ranch-style house her parents built half a century ago. Her mother made her promise to live there after she was gone.
“She wouldn’t hush ’til I said yes,” Bishop said.
Now she lives with her cat Skittles and enjoys watching spooky stories on television. And because she can’t get around as well as she used to, previous pastimes, like gardening and yard work, are harder to manage.
“It’s gotten a little scruffy out there,” she said.
Like the flowerbeds, the house has begun to accumulate some of the issues that come with age.
When movement became more difficult for Bishop she knew she needed her bathroom outfitted for handicap accessibility. It was pricey for her, though, and she didn’t know how to make it happen.
Then she remembered her Aunt Barbara Henry, who lived for many years in a trailer just around the shoulder of the ridge, and remembered that when Henry’s shower stopped working, Mountain Projects helped out.
She put in a call to the organization’s Sylva office, and asked for help.
Mountain Projects, founded as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” legislation in the mid-1960s, has well over 100 employees and a broad range of programs and services, focused primarily on Jackson and Haywood counties.
One of the services is a Weatherization and Rehabilitation program that helps elderly, disabled and otherwise at-risk homeowners upgrade their houses and make them safer and more secure. Bishop’s call brought Vivian Bumgarner, the program’s manager, and staff member Vicky Ferguson around for a visit.
The program, which has existed for decades, replaces appliances and heating systems, provides cost-effective energy efficiency measures, rehabilitates deteriorated single-family, owner-occupied housing, provides accessibility modifications for elderly persons with disabilities and provides housing modifications that make homes safer, including ramps, grab bars and doors.
Services are funded primarily by governmental agencies and foundations focused on poverty alleviation. Participants are income qualified and projects are evaluated and prioritized based on available funding.
When Bumgarner and Ferguson arrived their aim was to rehab Bishop’s bathroom for handicap accessibility, but as is often the case with their work, one thing led to another.
Mountain Projects has long-term partnerships with contractors in the area who understand their mission and that they trust. So when one of those contractors finds a second problem while solving the first, Bumgarner and Ferguson know to take them seriously.
That’s what happened at Bishop’s house.
A few months have passed, and the Mountain Projects team has found ways to address serious problems, from plumbing to water supply, and from heating to appliances.
Not all homeowners can qualify for this range of help, but Bishop could, and her son, Darren Lane Ammons, provided labor to lessen the cost. “Without his help some of this couldn’t have happened,” Bumgarner said.
“We have to meet certain construction standards,” Ferguson said. “If we can’t afford to meet those standards on a given job, we have to walk away.”
“We hate to walk away,” Bumgarner said.
The team makes things work not by scrimping, but through relationships with contractors and careful planning.
“We don’t look for high-dollar,” Bumgarner said. “We like good, solid, mid-range work.”
Fortunately in Bishop’s case expensive roof and electric repairs weren’t necessary, but other issues had begun to snowball.
“When we came we knew the stove didn’t work because it was covered in houseplants,” said Bumgarner. The refrigerator was decades old. “Milk would only last three days,” Bishop said. “And I love milk.”
Like many homes in rural Jackson County, the house shared a water source with neighbors, but it was insufficient and sometimes failed. Bumgarner’s team was able to solve that problem as well, along with septic field issues.
By the end of the project, Bishop felt much better, safer and relieved.
“Vivian and Vicky are two of the best people I’ve ever known,” she said. “From the minute they walked in the door. I love to see them coming.”
To learn if your income qualifies for the Weatherization and Home Rehabilitation program, call Mountain Projects, 452-1447 or visit mountainprojects.org/housing-rehabilitation to read more on the program.
Bill Graham works for Buris Chalmers Creative, representing Mountain Projects.