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updated: 7/12/2017 11:10 PM

Volunteers rally to renovate military widow's home in Aurora

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  • Sears employee Dulce Contreras works on inside demolition, left, while Rebuilding Together Aurora's Paul Veach removes window flashing. Volunteers came together Wednesday in Aurora to renovate the home of Linda Ottinger, above, chatting with state Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, right. Below, Sears corporate safety worker Chris Portwood, left, saws a metal pipe while working with Patrick Rogers, president of Rebuilding Together Aurora's board of directors.

    Sears employee Dulce Contreras works on inside demolition, left, while Rebuilding Together Aurora's Paul Veach removes window flashing. Volunteers came together Wednesday in Aurora to renovate the home of Linda Ottinger, above, chatting with state Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, right. Below, Sears corporate safety worker Chris Portwood, left, saws a metal pipe while working with Patrick Rogers, president of Rebuilding Together Aurora's board of directors.
    photos by Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Homeowner Linda Ottinger, left, chats with state Rep. Stephanie Kifowit as dozens of volunteers work to renovate Ottinger's Aurora home on Wednesday.

    Homeowner Linda Ottinger, left, chats with state Rep. Stephanie Kifowit as dozens of volunteers work to renovate Ottinger's Aurora home on Wednesday.
    Robert Sanchez | Staff Photographer

  • Sears corporate safety worker Chris Portwood, left, saws a metal pipe while working with Patrick Rogers, president of Rebuilding Together Aurora's board of directors.

    Sears corporate safety worker Chris Portwood, left, saws a metal pipe while working with Patrick Rogers, president of Rebuilding Together Aurora's board of directors.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • On Wednesday, more than 30 Sears employees helped Rebuilding Together Aurora continue an extensive renovation of Linda Ottinger's house in Aurora. The house needed extensive repairs after Ottinger struggled for years to maintain it.

    On Wednesday, more than 30 Sears employees helped Rebuilding Together Aurora continue an extensive renovation of Linda Ottinger's house in Aurora. The house needed extensive repairs after Ottinger struggled for years to maintain it.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

 
 

It started with Linda Ottinger complaining about a leaking toilet.

About a month later, the 72-year-old woman is standing inside her gutted Aurora house thanking the "angels" working to transform it into a safe and healthy home.

"It's like seeing a new house being built," Ottinger said Wednesday in what used to be her living room.

Dozens of volunteers from Hoffman Estates-based Sears Holdings Corp. were there to help a nonprofit group -- Rebuilding Together Aurora -- continue an extensive renovation of Ottinger's single-story, three-bedroom house.

Some of the volunteers installed insulation and drywall. Others sealed holes, removed an old chimney and -- when it wasn't raining -- did yard work.

"I'm overwhelmed," Ottinger said over the hum of a generator and the sound of pounding hammers. "I wouldn't say it's better than going to heaven. But it's really great."

Rebuilding Together Aurora, which repairs homes for senior citizens, veterans and low-income families, initially visited Ottinger's house with the intention of fixing the water leak. They found a number of problems with the structure, which was built in 1954.

Ottinger has lived in the house for 50 years. She and her late husband, Charles, raised four children there. Ottinger was a homemaker while her husband, who was in the Navy in the 1950s, worked several jobs after completing his military service.

Eight years ago, Ottinger's husband and youngest son both passed away within three months of each other. Since that time, Ottinger has had a limited income and struggled to maintain her home.

"I couldn't keep up with everything," she said. "Everything was going down, and I couldn't keep up."

When Rebuilding Together Aurora inspected the house, members concluded that Ottinger was living in unsafe conditions.

"It was pretty extreme," said Heather Binder, executive director of Rebuilding Together Aurora. "There were problems of mold, asbestos, pest infiltration and very poor air quality."

The house's electrical system was dangerous and had to be redone.

"We knew five minutes after we left this house that we were going to come back," said Patrick Rogers, president of Rebuilding Together Aurora's board of directors. "We were concerned for her health. So we wanted to do what we could to help."

To help pay for the project, Rebuilding Together Aurora applied for a grant from Sears' Heroes at Home program, which raises money to assist military families in need. Thanks to donations made by customers in Sears stores and online, Heroes at Home funds critical repairs and modifications to the homes of veterans across the country.

When it came to Ottinger, the Heroes at Home program provided more than financial support. More than 30 Sears employees contributed their time on Wednesday to help with the renovation.

"We talk a lot about showing pride," Brian Hanover, a senior director of public relations, told fellow Sears employees before the workday began. "I don't know a better example of showing pride than all of you here today helping out a really deserving military widow."

The renovation project started several weeks ago. By Wednesday, volunteers from schools and other groups had already helped gut the house so it could be rewired. Carpenters had volunteered their time to install a new roof.

Over the next two weeks, a list of additional improvements will be made, including finishing the bathroom, kitchen and floors.

"We don't usually have this extensive of a project," Binder said. "But the situation warranted a really extensive approach."

Ottinger is staying with one of her daughters until the project is finished.

Karolin Maier, Ottinger's other daughter, fought back tears talking about what it will be like to see her mom return to a fully repaired home.

"It's a dream come true," she said. "I've been praying for this for seven years."

Maier said her mother never wanted to move, despite the condition of the house.

"She wouldn't be happier anywhere else," Maier said. "This community is all she knows."