Be the Gift Rolls out Workshop on Wheels

Local philanthropists Chris and Marilyn Johnson unleash their newest fleet of fully stocked, construction-ready trailers on local moms in need.
"We're in our ninth year, and we started right here at our house," says Be the Gift co-founder and co-director Chris Johnson.

He and his wife, Marilyn, have always had a soft spot for moms. As a youth minister in Loveland, Chris worked with Colorado families for two decades, many of which were led by single mothers.

When the Johnsons decided to start up their own nonprofit geared toward helping single moms, they knew they'd have to hone in on something specific. One day, a neighbor who was a single mom struggling to make ends meet told Chris she needed help putting in her storm windows. Chris sent over a contractor, who quickly ascertained that his new client didn't just need help putting windows in -- she needed new windows altogether.

"We realized many single moms' needs revolved around their homes," Chris says, adding, "Our gift, if you will, is giving them a safer, healthier and more functioning home in which to raise their children."

The Johnsons themselves didn't have any construction experience, but many of Chris's friends were contractors, masons and carpenters. "It started steamrolling as we learned how to make the process work," explains Chris. Last year, Be the Gift had 150 volunteers, and completed over 75 projects in Denver and northern Colorado. "Our only criteria," says Chris, "is that's she's a homeowner and her needs are within our scope."

Wheeled workshopsWith three trailers, Be the Gift will be able to tackle three projects every weekend.

Be the Gift has expanded its home repair program by adding three fully stocked construction-ready trailers to its arsenal, thanks to a $26,000 Innovate for Good grant from Denver's Rose Community Foundation, which uses leadership, grantmaking and donor engagement to invest in strategic and innovative solutions to enduring problems and emerging issues.

When it comes to grantmaking, Rose Community Foundation invests in nonprofit organizations that work to make the Denver Area a better place for all people, primarily in the areas of aging, education, health, Jewish life and child and family development.

"We got one grant during the first stage of the process, and secured another when we won the grand prize," Marilyn clarifies. Before securing grant monies, Be the Gift had a single trailer loaded of tools, and it bounced the equipment between job sites. New trailers might not seem like a lot, but they'll change the pace of the program entirely.

With three trailers, Be the Gift will be able to tackle three projects every weekend; up until now, they'd averaged one project per weekend. "The need is definitely there," says Marilyn.

Be the Gift's new trailers will allow volunteers to work much more efficiently, too. "When you do home repair projects, you'll go to Home Depot five times. Our project managers love these trailers because they come with everything -- even the stuff you didn't know you needed," says Marilyn.

First fixesBe the Gift won a $26,000 Innovate for Good grant from Rose Community Foundation.

The latest fleet of Workshop on Wheels trailers rolled up to three homes on Sat. May 14. On their inaugural journeys, 45 volunteers divvied up work fixing bathroom and plumbing issues, remedying unsafe doors and windows and removing fallen tree limbs from backyards. At one house, volunteers even helped repair a chicken coop for a single mom who raises chickens for extra income.  

"These single moms are resilient, and so amazing," says Marilyn. "Many of the women are nominated for our program because [single moms] always think somebody needs help more than they do."

You don't have to be a homebuilder to support Be the Gift; the nonprofit uses volunteers from all skill levels. "If you're a professional contractor, handyman or just someone with a willing heart, there is a place for you," Marilyn says. Donations are also appreciated.

This story was underwritten by Rose Community Foundation.
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Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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