Mission helps out in hard times

Elijah Cohen points to some awnings and trim that still need painting on his recently painted house in Hollywood recently. Hundreds of youth and senior citizens from around the country, as well as the College of Charleston and The Citadel, replaced the leaky roof and helped Cohen paint the sidiing last summer through Johns Island Rural Mission.

All his life, Elijah Cohen has been a working man.

He hauled logs in a sawmill, drove railroad spikes, hoisted shrimp nets, poured concrete and painted houses all over the Lowcountry.

Now 78, he's learning to accept help from others. He's one of the many Lowcountry residents whom Johns Island Rural Mission has helped.

Cohen has lived in a frame house on S.C. Highway 162 in Hollywood since the 1950s.

"You could lie down in the road back then and never see a car," he recalled.

He expanded the house to accommodate three children. He tacked up new plywood when the roof started leaking. But it came to the point where he could no longer keep up, and the leaks outpaced his determination to plug them. He uses a cane to walk and can't stand long without it.

That's when Rural Mission stepped in. The agency lined up volunteers from all over the country to put on a new roof and repaint the siding last summer.

It wasn't just new tar paper and shingles, according to construction manager Anderson Mack. The whole roof came off, and new trusses were erected.

Volunteers came from the College of Charleston and The Citadel, as well as from several churches in South Carolina, Indiana and Virginia, said assistant construction manager Ben Crawford.

Cohen is not adverse to getting some help. He says he enjoyed talking with young people working on the house and seeing their enthusiasm. "Sometimes it just makes you cry," Cohen said.

But he was determined to finish painting the awnings and trim himself.

"It won't take me long," he said.

He talked about how fast he used to paint. He said he could estimate a job to the minute, assuming the rest of the crew kept up with him. "I was gifted."

Cohen was out painting the awnings the week after Thanksgiving.

Rural Mission will rehabilitate about two dozen houses this year. Another 100 houses will get smaller emergency repairs.

More than twice that many people will apply for help and not get it when the money runs out, Director Linda Gadson said. She was thinking of an 87-year-old woman who lives on James Island. "She's a desperate case," she said. "It rained last night (recently), and I know water is in her house."

Rural Mission, a project of the United Methodist Church, has been working on the islands near Charleston for more than 40 years. The need is great, according to Chris Brooks, the mission's program development director.

--Nearly 25 percent of the residents in the rural areas of Johns and Edisto islands live in poverty, well above the county average.

--A fifth of the low-income residents also live in houses that are substandard to the point of being hazardous and/or unhealthy.

--More than 800 families have applied for help with housing repair or rehabilitation. That's up from just over 300 applications in 2008.

Many of the elderly residents seeking help have children, but the children often need help as well, Gadson said.

The mission's funding has been shrinking with the beleaguered economy, but this year has been especially hard, Gadson said. That's partly because Rural Mission recently quit handling the Head Start program for migrants. The mission couldn't use Head Start money to fix houses, but the program helped with some administrative expenses, she said.

Of course, Gadson is upbeat, answering the phone with "Praise the Lord."

"We're trying," she said. "We've been around 42 years. It's our faith that sustains us."

Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553.