The transformation from fire department maintenance building to an emergency housing facility is almost complete at 421 S. Mapleton St.

Brighter Days Housing is tentatively scheduled to open Aug. 29, designed to house up to 36 people in need of immediate emergency housing in Columbus.

Although it has been referred to as a homeless shelter from inception to completion, stakeholders suggest that such a phrase conjures up negative connotations compared to the positives the new shelter can provide.

“We’re trying to avoid the word ‘homeless,’” said Love Chapel’s executive director, Elizabeth Kestler, as she walked through the newly painted rooms and hallways. “This will be a housing facility for people who are struggling.”

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The cavernous space that once held fire trucks now is subdivided into a reception area for clients and two bunk rooms and separate restrooms for each gender, along with “back of the house” space for volunteers and staff members.

A large storage area which contains the building’s new mechanicals and air handling system, is accessible through a metal pull-down ladder stairway on the first floor.

But the upstairs area isn’t enclosed, giving the building a trendy look as the spiral ductwork is visible along the building’s upper reaches.

The overall focus was been to avoid an institutional look, Kestler said.

A work in progress

It’s been just over a year since Columbus Township Trustee Ben Jackson and Kestler approached city officials about the shelter project to obtain zoning permits to transform the former township building into the shelter.After overcoming some initial concerns from nearby businesses about loitering and property values, work began on the structure earlier this year.

The building, in a commercial-industrial area near Love Chapel, is owned by the township, but will be staffed by Love Chapel staff and volunteers.

Kestler believes the power of prayer has led to successful completion of the project, which started when she and Jackson started looking for a general contractor.

They weren’t having much luck until Steve Ferdon and a group from Columbus’ Asbury United Methodist Church known as Mission Columbus stepped forward to offer to coordinate volunteer work and provide volunteers for the project.

That work was important because Jackson and Kestler hoped to complete the estimated $300,000 to $350,000 renovation project for less than $100,000, using donated materials and labor, supplemented with monetary donations and grants.

The city allocated up to $42,654 in Community Development Block Grant money for the renovation in December 2015.

The final cost hasn’t been tallied yet, Jackson said, as work is continuing to finish the facility next month.

Ferdon, who works for Cummins as director of engineering technology in the company’s Fuel Systems business, organized and coordinated volunteers from Ivy Tech Community College, Cummins, Inc., the city of Columbus, and some of the city’s high-end building contractors who donated craftsman and materials without regard for recognition.

Describing the project as a big challenge, Ferdon said Mission Columbus has adopted an operating principle from the work the local volunteers have done to help at national disaster scenes.

“Blessed are the flexible because they will not be bent out of shape” is the motto, Ferdon wrote in an email from India, where he was traveling for work with Cummins. “The key is to set your expectations accordingly and know that whatever you encounter, there is a way to overcome it.”

What was different about the Brighter Days project for the Mission Columbus workers was the duration of the work, Ferdon said.

The coordination of volunteer crews, material delivery, contractors and inspectors for any given week or stage wasn’t any more complicated than a mission trip to help after a hurricane, flood or tornado, he said.

“Where our long-term recovery mission trips last only for a week, we have been at this for eight months and counting,” he said. “This is twice as long as the recovery operations we coordinated during the 2008 (Columbus) flood.”

The group’s core leadership team of about 24 people, who are mostly Asbury United Methodist Church members, took turns rotating roles to work around work schedules, vacations, holidays and other commitments.

The leadership team defined the project schedule, recruited the volunteer teams, organized and obtained materials, trained new volunteers, provided snacks, lunch and doughnuts and most importantly — coffee, Ferdon said. When the group encountered technical difficulties or something that had to be done when volunteers weren’t available, a group of “Red Shirts,” or expert volunteers, stepped in to make it happen.

A community effort

Jackson and Kestler are putting together a list of the hundreds of businesses and volunteers that have contributed in multiple ways to the renovation.And they shared a few stories of how Mission Columbus’ connections, and connections to those connections, led to even more volunteered time and donated materials than the two had expected.

One of the first is a new privacy fence, installed and designed and stick-built by volunteer Cummins’ engineers, who precisely measured and tweaked the enclosure to a high standard.

“This is probably one of the nicest fences every built in Bartholomew County,” Jackson said of the engineers’ work.

The entire fence is level, square and the gap between each picket is exactly the same, Jackson said. He joked that he had heard they had done a force analysis at the Cummins Tech Center to determine how much wind the fence could withstand as part of the design.

Jackson said the fencing provides a shield to allow clients at Brighter Days to have some outdoor space to roam about, but also address neighbors’ concerns that there could be loitering around the facility throughout the day.

Along the side of the building is a brand new sidewalk, where city workers buried new, larger water pipes, then covered them up with a new sidewalk and landscaping.

The landscaping and installation was donated by Freedom Chapel in Columbus. Initially, Brighter Days staff asked the church to send them a bill for the materials, but the church raised the money and bought everything needed to complete the project, Jackson said.

Inside, the sturdy wood sheets that make up the floor of the upper storage level are actually the former dance floor from the Dancers Studio which moved from downtown to a new Cottage Avenue location. The wood was going to the landfill before Jackson learned about its availability, and the donated sheets would have been $45 each if they had to be purchased, he said.

Brighter Days is also grateful to Dunlap & Co., which donated the labor when installing a new air handling systems, and Central Sheet Metal, which donated all the custom-made duct work. Lohmeyer Plumbing’s Joe Lohmeyer reduced the cost and labor for his work on the project and worked with American Standard to get all of last year’s models of toilet fixtures and urinals donated for free to the shelter.

Columbus Regional Hospital’s maintenance department and electricians donated their time and expertise in wiring the building, and Superior Drywall threw in hanging the drywall in addition to finishing it, after Rose and Walker Supply in Columbus donated the materials.

Jackson and Kestler said they have been amazed and touched by the generosity of the businesses and contractors who did everything they could to lower or eliminate costs in order to get the shelter done.

Jackson recalled how Nichter Construction had a problem at a worksite and instead of sending three workers home, owner Roger Nichter and the workers headed over to Brighter Days to do the framing in the shelter’s bathrooms.

Nichter said he had heard about the Brighter Days project as a member of Westside Community Church and saw there was a need and wanted to get involved.

The Nichter crew stayed for three days, something Jackson said was incredibly generous as the company is well-known for its work on high-end homes in Columbus — another indication that the quality of work in the shelter is incredible.

Preparing for opening

As the finishing touches are completed throughout the facility, a larger grand opening will be scheduled later.Sometime prior to that, a fund-raiser is planned to allow individuals to pay to stay overnight at the shelter, with details to be announced later.

“We are going to start slowly, but the speed of completing this has been pretty phenomenal,” Kestler said.

When Ferdon looks back over the work accomplished so far, he said he’s most proud of what a community is capable of achieving when it puts its spiritual faith into action.

“When we talked about this project back in December, we had a big pole barn, a collection of engineering drawings that were still being revised, an unsecured budget and maybe 12 people who said ‘Yes, of course’ when asked if they would help build this thing out,” Ferdon said. “And now we are on the verge of starting operations, thanks to dozens of volunteer groups, organizations and contractors, hundreds of volunteer hours, thousands of dollars of donated and discounted materials,” he said.

“It was all committed to love of God and our neighbors — whatever their plight or life situation might be,” he said.

Volunteers still needed

Volunteers are being sought to help staff the new Brighter Days Housing homeless shelter.

The Ecumenical Assembly of Bartholomew County — Love Chapel is seeking to sign up 200 volunteers to help at the facility prior to its Aug. 29 opening.

Brighter Days will be an around-the-clock, every-day-of-the-year transition and emergency housing facility at 421 S. Mapleton St. that will provide for about 20 men and 16 women. Chaplains, in-take coordinators, hospitality providers and cleaning support are some of the volunteer opportunities.

Love Chapel is also hoping to find a person interested in being the overnight house manager at the facility, which organizers say is a perfect job for a college student looking for affordable housing and a stipend in exchange for supervising the facility at night. A dorm-sized living quarters for the individual is being completed, which includes a room and bathroom for the employee. Organizers are hoping for an applicant who is at least 21 years old to fill the position.

If interested in volunteering or working at the new facility, contact Kathy Thompson by email at volunteer@columbuslove chapel.com.

Introductory training sessions are being conducted for those interested in volunteering.

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.