Volunteers at Blueprint Ministries begin working on Debra Clay's house in the Eastside of San Antonio.
Volunteers at Blueprint Ministries begin working on Debra Clay's house in the Eastside of San Antonio. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The front door is wide open to the little green house that sits on a corner lot where weeds with purple flowers grow wild. Ladders lean against the eaves and paint buckets are stacked high around the chain-link fenced yard. “Start here,” says one of the adults directing kids as they apply blue painter’s tape to the white trim of dust-covered windows.

During the past four weeks, the weathered 70-year-old home has undergone a transformation. Groups of teens led by college-age interns and construction supervisors have replaced the home’s rotted roof, siding, and sheetrock, shored up a ceiling that leaked, and painted the Eastside house that was on the brink of collapse.

“When you saw it, it looked like it had no hope,” said homeowner Debra Clay.

The house is one of more than 60 that the nonprofit Blueprint Ministries and its hundreds of volunteers from around the country will repair this year. Their goal is to make homes safer, drier, and healthier for homeowners who live in poverty within seven San Antonio zip codes.

The end result are houses and human bonds built to last.

Blueprint Ministries got its start 10 years ago when Dee Dee Sedgwick was inspired by a similar program in Memphis, Tennessee. At the time, San Antonio had one of the largest percentages of substandard housing of any city in the nation. Very little was being done to solve it. And, as a youth pastor at University United Methodist Church, Sedgwick had witnessed the impact of pairing teens with community service.

“No one else was completely dedicated to restoring substandard housing except Merced [Housing Texas], and they had … a long waiting list,” Sedgwick said. “We are able to do homes at much less expense, because we are using volunteers guided by people who know construction.”

About 40 percent of American homes have one or more health or safety hazards, according to a State of Healthy Housing report, but the metropolitan areas with the least healthy housing in 2013 were San Antonio, Memphis, and Birmingham, Alabama. Studies show deficient housing contributes to not only increased health problems and injuries, especially in the elderly, but also homelessness and instability.

Blueprint Ministries repairs substandard homes that belong to people who live at or below the poverty level and who do not have a family member or friend who can assist them. The organization has also partnered with Child Protective Services to repair homes belonging to grandparents and other family members, in order to make adoptions possible.

There are about 150 homeowners on the current waiting list. Those with disabilities or children in the home move up the list faster.

Debra Clay.
Debra Clay. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Clay, 56, applied for assistance three years ago. Blueprint then assessed her home to be sure it could make the needed repairs and conducted background checks. The organization does not fix electrical systems, plumbing or foundations, but will do almost everything else, including replacing roofs, Sedgwick said. “What we do offer is an opportunity for hope.”

In 2009, Blueprint took ownership of the old McKinley Avenue United Methodist Church buildings that were up for sale on the city’s South Side, renovated the space with money from foundation grants, and created a facility that can house and feed 150 youth and their counselors at a time.

Groups of kids ages 13 and up attend the weeklong camps throughout the summer and do all the repair work on homes. They come from churches of many different denominations as well as from schools and scout groups in Texas and Oklahoma, but also from as far as Tennessee and Connecticut.

The same youth groups often attend year after year – Blueprint has a 96-percent return rate – and some campers “graduate” to serve as summer-long interns who work as camp counselors. In all, Blueprint Ministries is supported by about 2,000 volunteers a year, doing everything from kitchen cleanup to popsicle runs. The organization became a state-licensed youth camp in 2012.

With a $700,000 annual budget, the nonprofit relies on individual donations and grants. One homeowner who was once helped by Blueprint gives back with a monthly donation of $10. A camper fee of $315 covers a volunteer’s lodging and meals, and area volunteers help cook and serve meals. The facility is rented to other groups and retreats when it’s not being used for Blueprint activities.

From the outside looking in, the facility on South Presa Street is everything you might expect to see in a summer youth camp. On one recent morning, kids in shorts and T-shirts played a rousing “nine-square in the air” and other lawn games. Some were teaming up to load bins of snacks, tools, and other materials into passenger vans tagged with team names like “Mac & Cheese,” “Watermelon,” and “Meme.”

Soon, all the teens and their counselors, wearing red Santa hats to mark the day’s theme of “Christmas in July,” gathered together in a circle in the parking lot for a prayer and rally before heading out for the day’s work.

On site at Clay’s home a little later, a half-dozen kids were prepping the house for paint. It’s Day 3 for Nathan Graves, Zachary Stoltz, and Connor Rapp, 15-year-olds from Christ Community Church in Houston. The boys said they came to the camp because they heard the program was fun. “Everyone is serving and super joyful about it,” Graves said. If they weren’t at Blueprint, they all agreed, they’d be playing Fortnite or maybe tennis.

Overseeing their work is Matt Ebert, 19, an engineering student at Texas A&M University. Ebert attended the camp three times while in middle and high school on San Antonio’s far North Side.

“It was really eye opening,” he said of seeing dilapidated homes and blighted neighborhoods in his hometown for the first time as a youngster. “It’s why I came back.”

This summer, he has the job of an intern, one of a group of six college-age men and one woman. It’s a role that provides plenty of lessons in patience and leadership, Ebert said. “I never thought middle-schoolers could teach me so much.”

The first time Ebert and the campers met Clay, she was quiet and guarded, he said. Clay grew up in the neighborhood and bought the home with her husband in 1996, fixed it up and raised two children there. She has worked in school cafeterias and as a bus driver for nearly three decades and now has eight grandchildren.

After her husband died in 2010, she said, “I was a mess. When you don’t have anybody to fix things, you’re scared. You don’t have legs to stand on. But you go to work and you cope.” Yet as the house began to fall down around her, there was nowhere else she wanted to be.

“We eat here, we have family here, my husband’s spirit is in here with me,” Clay said. “I’m at home, that’s the way I feel.”

It’s now four weeks into Blueprint’s work on her home, and her doors are wide open to the campers and she’s always ready to talk. “They comfort me, I comfort them,” Clay said. Her young granddaughter, Ta’mia Jackson, sees the work being done and recently asked if she could volunteer with Blueprint next year.

Sedgwick tells her yes. After all, the real mission of Blueprint Ministries is building  relationships between the homeowners and campers, both of whom discover they have more in common than less, and who often keep in touch long after camp ends and repairs are done.

“If the only thing we get done here at these houses is the work, then we have failed,” said Ebert, quoting Blueprint Community Construction Director Layton Kauffman. “Because the work is to let us connect with the homeowner.”

Debra Clay looks up into her living room which is in the middle of being rehabilitated by Blueprint Ministries.
Debra Clay looks at her living room amid Blueprint Ministries volunteers’ rehabilitation efforts. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.