Charleston Place employee heads up effort to help Rural Mission finish 2 homes for local folks in need

Carol Etheridge (left) greets to Shirley Smiley outside Smiley's Hollywood home Wednesday. Etheridge, human resource director at Charleston Place, is heading an effort to raise money to complete a home (in background) that Rural Mission is building to rep

Brad Nettles

HOLLYWOOD - Shirley and Harry Smiley raised four children in the second-hand mobile home they bought back in 1975 at the start of their marriage. They've worked careers, retired and welcomed two more generations to their family during their time within these walls.

Their marriage and faith have held strong over three decades. The same can't be said for their home.

The roof leaks so much that their bed becomes soaked on rainy nights. Old towels and a hunk of sheetrock block one rotted entrance to keep cold, pests and rain from getting in. The bedrooms lack heat in the winter. The damp chill has left Shirley Smiley and her son with severe allergies and asthma.

"It's horrible," she said, tears sliding down her cheeks. "I've just been wishing and praying to God for a new home."

Just feet from her door, Smiley's wish is taking shape. A new three-bedroom home for the family is framed and sided, thanks to volunteer labor and assistance from the Rural Mission ministry of Johns Island. For now, however, the project is stalled in its tracks until the group can find more money and skilled workers to complete the home.

That doesn't sit well at all with Carol Etheridge, a Hollywood native who is the human resources director at Charleston Place. After reading about Rural Mission's plight in The Post and Courier, she decided to spearhead an effort to finish the Smileys' home and another house being built for Henrietta Mack, a 73-year-old Wadmalaw Island woman whose mobile home is collapsing around her.

"This just grabbed my heart and wouldn't let it go," Etheridge said.

With help from Charleston Grill General Manager Mickey Bakst, the force behind Charleston's Chefs Feed the Need, Etheridge is appealing for community donations to raise about $30,000 needed to complete the two homes. Also needed are housewares and furnishings for the homes. The goal is to get at least one of the homes finished by Christmas.

Burrow Hill of Hill Construction has agreed to help with the effort and is trying to round up electricians, plumbers, heating and air conditioning specialists and other tradesmen to volunteer their time. Hill said he found the "Homes for Christmas" project a meaningful way to give back and help others during the holidays.

Rural Mission officials certainly think so. The organization has been repairing and building homes for low-income and elderly families since the 1960s on the sea islands and small communities in southern Charleston County. But like many non-profits, the group has been squeezed hard by the sour economy, with needs far outpacing donations.

Even in good times, the need is great, said Chris Brooks, Rural Mission's director of program development. The group handles around 60 home-repair projects every year and builds two homes annually, but more than 640 people remain on the waiting list for aid. Many of those people have annual incomes of $12,000 or less. They don't have money to make repairs and can't get financing to help, he said.

"These are good, solid people who deserve a decent place to live," Brooks said.

Mack is among those in need of help. She's a widow and great-grandmother who spent her whole life on the same rural road. Her battered mobile home, built in 1974, sags and slumps at odd angles. Plastic sheets cover the ceiling to keep water and debris from raining down on her and her family. The floor is soggy and cracked, threatening to give way in spots. The only warmth comes from a small portable heater. But living on $690 a month in Social Security benefits, she can't afford to make repairs to her home.

"We bought it new, but now it's really falling down," Mack said. "It's been hard. Some of my kids want me to leave and go to New York to live with them, but I don't want to go there. It's too cold. This is my home."

Rural Mission broke ground on her 800-square-foot, two-bedroom home two years ago. Volunteers have completed much of the work, even building her dog Diamond a little shelter. But a heating and air-conditioning system must be paid for and a new septic tank and drain field installed, among other things.

As rain pattered against her roof Wednesday, Mack said she is extremely grateful for the work that has been done. Now, she simply must remain patient and make do until the home is finished, she said.

Brooks shook his head as he surveyed the property. "We need to get you out of here."

He and Rural Mission Director Linda Gadson feel the same about the Smileys. Their home is beyond repair; the conditions are unbearable at times for the couple, who share their place with a son, a granddaughter and a great-grandson. Gadson recalled one frosty day when a tearful Shirley Smiley showed up at her door asking for blankets, as the home seemed colder than the air outside.

Smiley considers the new home a blessing. She and her husband feel the same about the volunteers they met, strangers who came from all over the country to help them. One volunteer from Columbia made a surprise visit this week to drop off a Thanksgiving dinner. Others have left messages of hope and scripture scrawled all over the unfinished walls of the new home.

Many mornings, when the children have left for school, Shirley Smiley comes over to the new home and walks through the shells of future rooms, reading the messages on the wall. She imagines what having a new home will be like and how the new rooms will be furnished. She knows it will happen. It has to.

"These are tears of joy," she said, clearing her eyes. "I know my Lord, and he hasn't taken me this far to leave me now."

Homes for Christmas

Donations are being sought to help Rural Mission Inc. complete new homes for Henrietta Mack of Wadmalaw Island and the Smiley family of Hollywood.

People can donate through the group's Web site at http://ruralmission.org or by sending checks to "Homes for Christmas" c/o Rural Mission Inc., P.O. Box 235, Johns Island, SC 29457.

The PODS company has donated a portable storage unit where people can drop off new or gently used furnishings for the homes. The unit will be located at Seacoast Church's West Ashley campus, 2049 Savannah Highway, beginning Tuesday.

The project also is seeking plumbers, electricians, heat and air-conditioning technicians and other skilled tradespeople to volunteer. For more information, contact Rural Mission at 768-1720.

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or gsmith@postandcourier.com.