For Annette Gibson-Strong, “The Color Purple” isn’t just a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Alice Walker and a popular film starring Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey.
It was also the shade of a fresh coat of paint Saturday – thanks to several volunteers who worked on her Hopeland Street home, especially the University of Dayton football team – that brought her front porch and her long lost son so warmly back to life.
“This is truly awesome,” Annette said as she surveyed the scene from the street, just as a neighbor drove by and beeped his car horn in appreciation. “Look how bright it is. The white is clean and the purple…Wow!”
When her 80-year-old father, Fred Gibson, died a few years ago, she took over the home where she and several siblings, including her sister Jeannette, who lives across the street, grew up.
“Purple was my son’s favorite color,” she said referring to Antoine Gibson, who she called Boo Man. “He was murdered in 1992. They had a party at the 801 Union Hall downtown, that’s where he was killed.
“He was my boy. He was awesome. He was just 19. This past February 21st he would have been 45.”
Her voiced faded to a whisper: “I haven’t seen him in 26 years.
“When I moved back after my dad passed, I told my son, ‘OK, we got our first house and I’m painting the porch purple for you.’ It was my way of bringing him along with me.”
Saturday, Boo Man’s memory and thoughts of her dad and reminisces of her struggling Carillon neighborhood all were invigorated thanks to the Rebuilding Together Dayton (RTD) campaign that brought hundreds of volunteer workers to the area.
The last Saturday in April is always National Rebuilding Day for the some 150 non-profit Rebuilding Together affiliates around the nation.
Here in Dayton, the focus was the neighborhood just north of Welcome Stadium — between Edwin C, Moses Boulevard and I-75 up to Albany Street. Ten homes – most belonging to elderly, low income owners — were refurbished and streets and alleyways were cleaned up.
The area was once a thriving middle class neighborhood, sustained, as RTD officials noted, by the presence of major employers such as General Motors and McCall Printing.
Over the years, those companies left and the area began to suffer. With the housing downturn a decade ago, people moved out and houses were abandoned.
That this happened just north of where UD plays its home games and has had great success – had a special resonance Saturday with Flyers coach Rick Chamberlin and some of the 88 players he brought along to help in the rebuilding efforts.
“We play just a couple of blocks away,” said Sam Costantino a sophomore wide receiver from Middlesex., N.J. “When you drive past (from campus to the stadium) you don’t really notice it, but now that we’re here and working with the people, you realize how privileged we are and the responsibility we have to share some of our blessings.
“To see some of the faces today, to see how happy people are that we’re helping, it feels good to give back.”
UD football gets involved
Chamberlin said he was approached a little over eight years ago by Amy Radachi, the president and CEO and of Rebuilding Together Dayton and Marty Coates, a Dayton builder who was a former UD player:
“They said. ‘Hey Coach, we have a project we want to see if you’re interested in.”
The pair knew Chamberlin would be a receptive audience. His own volunteer work has been ongoing for years. Through a North Dixie Drive church, he has gone on mission trips in Africa, Mexico and southeast Ohio and done other outreach work in North Dayton.
Once Radachi and Coates made their pitch, Chamberlin said he told them: “We’re in.”
His philosophy has always been that he not only wants his players to get an education and a winning football experience while at UD, but he hopes they’ll leave with a better understanding of the bigger world around them.
Saturday the Flyers joined other volunteers from places like Booz Allen Hamilton, RTA, St. Andrews, the AFIT students at Wright Patterson Air Force Base and Living Beatitudes Community. The effort also received funds from area businesses, especially Bonbright Distributing, which donated $50,000.
“It’s neat to have volunteers from all different walks of life coming together and helping people,” said local landscaper Scott Davis, who was in charge of the work at Annette’s home.
Since the RTD effort first began — under another name in 1996 — some 65 neighborhoods in Dayton have been aided by 15,000 volunteers. The average age of the home owners who were helped was 72 and the average annual income was just over $16,000.
Annette is 60, but just recently recovered from a broken leg. She said she couldn’t afford many of the repairs that were needed around her home.
The group painted her house and the porch, fixed screens, put the gutters back up and painted them, brought mulch and flowers for landscaping and will be back to fix the furnace.
The football players took down the dilapidated garage in her backyard and loaded it into a giant dumpster. They cleaned up the backyard along the kennels where she said her dad used to keep “rabbit dogs, coon dogs and bird dogs. He was a sportsman.”
She now keeps four Afghan Rock Shepherds out there.
As the group cut down the thickets of scrub brush that lined the alley, she looked out and was stunned:
“That’s the first time I’ve been able to look over and see Cincinnati Street in 20 years!”
One special Saturday
She was standing out front when Jeannette drove up and, with a laugh, flashed her long, blue finger nails: “I had to get a nail fixed. I broke it moving a case of water.”
She teasingly asked if she’s missed anything.
“Girl, you gotta see,” Annette exclaimed. “It’s unbelievable.”
Jeannette lamented: “I need to get my house fixed, too.”
Annette nodded: “You should see over on Bolander. Mr. Moses’s place and Miss Harris – The Sewin’ Lady – her place, too. They’re alumining-siding it, Baby! They’re doing all kinds of stuff. When I saw it, it knocked my socks off.”
As we walked down Hopewell toward Bolander, we passed the big, empty lots that her sister keeps mowed for the neighborhood. Across the street was a boarded-up house.
“That’s where the raccoons live,” she shrugged.
Walking down Bolander, you witnessed a beehive of volunteer activity.
Annette pointed out six vacant houses on the block, five that were in a row: “People died or raised their kids and left.”
As she was talking, Chamberlin walked up and she hugged him.
“Your kids, all the work they did, all the free time they gave up, I’m beyond words,” she said. “For somebody to care that much about someone else, I’m just overwhelmed. God bless you all. You made my day, my week, my year….Wow!”
Chamberlin grinned: “That’s what we want. A ‘Wow!’”
Later, back at her place, Annette went into her back yard to thank the team.
“My heroes,” she beamed. She called it one of the best days of her life.
Later Chamberlin was still warmed by what he had heard:
“Hopefully, one Saturday these people here will hear the cheering and the loud speaker from one of our games over at Welcome Stadium and they’ll say, ‘Those same football players were over in my back yard this spring.’”
Annette said she will be able to do just that when she sits on her newly painted front porch and shares the moment with memories of the young son she lost and the bunch of boys about the same age who came into her life one special Saturday in April.