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Jane Hamilton retires after 13 years with Rebuilding Together Petaluma

In her 13 years as executive director of a local nonprofit dedicated to helping Petaluma’s oldest, poorest residents, Jane Hamilton oversaw hundreds of projects.

But she has little trouble recalling one of the most meaningful efforts. It involved a 79-year-old woman, living in a crumbling home, who just wanted hot water.

For the previous nine months, only frigid water had poured from the woman’s shower head or kitchen faucet. She was hoping to get it fixed. So she got in touch with Rebuilding Together Petaluma, the grant- and donation-funded nonprofit aimed at helping older adults and residents with disabilities accomplish critical home repairs.

But when representatives from the local nonprofit came to her home, they realized hot water issues were was just the start of the problems with the home.

The bathroom floor was falling in. The furnace hadn’t worked in years. The roof leaked. But the woman just wanted hot water.

“When we asked if there was anything else in the house (we could fix), she was reluctant, because she was unsure whether we would still give her hot water,” said Hamilton, 70, who officially retired Nov. 30. “We did all of those things for her. That was really an amazing project. So many people worked on that.”

Started in the 1990s as Christmas in April, Rebuilding Together Petaluma once brought together about 100 volunteers to tackle a series of projects around town. But Hamilton, a former Petaluma City Council member voted to approve funding for the organization when it was established locally, saw more potential in the group. After taking over in 2008, she and Program Manager Victoria O’Riley moved quickly to expand the nonprofit’s footprint.

“We immediately made it two big volunteer days per year, and then we started doing year-round projects,” Hamilton said. “We more than doubled the budget and more than doubled the year-round projects.”

Today, the nonprofit boasts an army of some 600 regular volunteers, reliable HUD funding through the city of Petaluma and partnerships with home improvement stores such as Friedman’s and Lowe’s that have helped Rebuilding Together Petaluma help hundreds of residents in the past decade-plus.

Hamilton’s replacement, Drake Cunningham, has been involved with the organization as a board member for years, and had high praise for how Hamilton has positioned the group, saying she has had a “profound impact” on the nonprofit and on Petaluma.

“Jane has the wonderful ability of showing a need – exposing a need and energizing people to want to take care of that need,” Cunningham said.

It’s a point echoed by Petaluma Mayor Teresa Barrett, who credits Hamilton for her ability to bring people together, and for the “huge difference” she has made for the community.

“Jane has not only tapped the best in Petaluma, but I think she has brought it out in people who didn’t really see it in themselves,” Barrett said. “She would let them know what they could was really going to make a big difference in the community. And once they did it once, they came back.”

Cunningham, who worked in construction, got involved through a desire to help with projects. So did current Board President Dustin O’Brien, a local painter who now serves on the board with his wife, Lara O’Brien.

Cunningham said taking the role of executive director represents a complete career change. But he has an explanation.

“You do catch a bug. There is something about this work,” he said. “Of all of the things I’ve helped with or volunteered with, it not only feels good. It feels right. The work is just completely necessary and fulfilling at the same time.”

In Petaluma, the need is great, regularly outpacing the nonprofit’s resources and forcing board members to make difficult, triage-like decisions about who they can help, and how.

Projects come to Rebuilding Together Petaluma through a variety of channels, including residents reaching out, family members or friends of residents and referrals from city departments.

The nonprofit’s $500,000 to $1 million annual budget is partially supplemented by HUD funding, which ensures most of the projects are for the benefit of older adults or residents who have disabilities. To qualify, residents also must have low or very low incomes.

Staff ensure the projects and residents qualify, and then present those to the organization’s board for approval, which is where the tough decisions get made.

“There’s always folks waiting, always some we can’t get to,” said Cunningham. “With more funding, we of course could grow the program.”

Hamilton said the ongoing local homelessness crisis has her eyeing an important role for Rebuilding Together Petaluma volunteers in potentially helping build tiny home shelters. She called the nonprofit “uniquely suited” to the work.

Cunningham said he’s hopeful for the return of large, in-person volunteer projects starting in April. It would be the first such large volunteer gathering since the fall of 2019 due to the pandemic, and Cunningham said he’s looking forward to being able to coordinate the effort. Whether that involves a series of large outdoor projects, cleaning city parks or even building tiny homes, remains to be seen.

“We obviously have a whole waiting list of folks who need things done,” Cunningham said.

Tyler Silvy is editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. Reach him at tyler.silvy@arguscourier.com, 707-776-8458, or @tylersilvy on Twitter.

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