Harbor House: Empowering Adults with Disabilities

BIA Members, Immediate Past President Reveal Second Respite House Remodel

Originally published in the Louisville Builder.

December marked the official opening of the Wirtzberger Respite House, the second of its kind for Harbor House of Louisville, though BIA Immediate Past President Don Wirtzberger said he could’ve done without the namesake.

Citing his business partner at Sierra Design & Construction and the number of people who worked hard over the year and a half it took to finish the remodel, Wirtzberger said seeing the community use it for its intended purpose was all he would have needed.

But Maria Smith, CEO of Harbor House, knows how much work went into the project and still dedicated the home to Wirtzberger for his leadership and connection with the Harbor House community. “If it hadn’t been for him leading it, they would have never come together,” said Smith, “and they may not have ever even thought about doing it; [but because he] put his time into it, they were willing to do that as well.”

Harbor House, located near Pleasure Ridge Park in southwest Jefferson County, provides a home away from home for adults with disabilities (participants) and is a trusted care provider for more than 300 participants’ families. The organization seeks to empower adults with physical and mental disabilities, with the respite houses offering supervised overnight stays with a respite house staff member. The houses give participants the opportunity to be independent and spend time with friends without their caregivers, while offering their families their own space and peace of mind.

“It’s a very taxing and time-consuming kind of deal for the families, and they do that with a lot of love and respect, … but they also need a break. Everybody needs a break,” Smith said. “So, this gives the families that needed break, and I don’t know who enjoys it more [between] the families and the participants — it’s their slumber party away with their friends on the weekends.”

Wirtzberger said he first heard of Harbor House about four years ago, during a BIA Board of Directors meeting when they discussed the organization’s need for a kitchen remodel at their facility. Sierra Design & Construction took on that project, installing a new floor, countertops, cabinets and rewiring electricity.

“Don was the lead on that, so he would come out and work with us to remodel the kitchen, and the participants were so curious and would want to help him,” Smith explained. “We have one guy in particular who loves to do anything with any maintenance around here, so he teamed up with Don. He’d be in the kitchen and would want to hand him his tools or take wrapping off of the new appliances when they came in. … Don got to be over here and to work and communicate with them and understand them, and he really formed a bond with our participants. It was a real joy for him.”

Just when Harbor House was about to dedicate their new kitchen, Smith approach-ed Wirtzberger about taking on the respite house project.

“She’s very good at what she does because she got me to do two projects pretty handily,” Wirtzberger laughed. “I was more than glad to do it, though.”

“He just fell in love with Harbor House and the people,” said Smith. “He knew that it was going to help them in a big way, so he dedicated time again, … talked to other folks to get them involved in services … to get the project completed, and it just has been a real source of joy for all of us all the way around. It gave us lots to look forward to and an opportunity for our people to be served in a better way, and Don loved the fact that it was going to serve the people it served.”

Next door to the first respite house on Lower Hunters Trace, which opened in 2011, the newly renovated house has two bedrooms, one bathroom, a living room, kitchen and an unfinished basement, and it’s fully furnished. Aside from having to tear the house down to the studs, Wirtzberger said there were no major hiccups finishing the project.

“The house had good bones,” he said. “No termite damage, no structural issues, but outside of that, from there on, it needed everything.”

Overall, it took about a year and a half for the team to install new insulation, electrical, drywall, plumbing, a new roof and chimney, as well as new tile and shower in the bathroom, kitchen cabinets and furnace.

“It just took time,” he said. “I would basically donate my time when I had it, unless it was a critical juncture of what was going on out there.” They’d work on it when they could, juggling the influx of remodel jobs that the coronavirus pandemic created. For an industry that has seen as much growth as it has in 2020 (Sierra Design & Construction, for example, isn’t accepting any new projects for several months), donating time, services, money and energy during a global pandemic might seem like a tall order. Still, BIA members delivered.

“We asked people to help with donations and/or donating either services at a discount or for free, and some big people stepped up to the plate,” said Wirtzberger. “GE supplied all the appliances, which [included] a [washer and dryer], range, refrigerator, microwave, and dishwasher. Prudential Heating & Air donated the furnace and A/C unit and all the installation of the duct work. Candlelight Electric … donated all the electrical installation. … Highland Roofing put the roof on at no charge for the labor. Our company, Sierra Design & Construction, basically ran the project and did a lot of little things, like we did the trim work, the tile work and the painting.”

In addition to Wirtzberger’s seat on BIA’s Executive Committee, he is also the chair of the Building Industry Charitable Foundation, which still has some funding in place to spend on projects, and he said if any BIA member hasn’t had the opportunity to get their hands dirty working on a charitable project, to give it a try.“

Try it one time. See how rewarding it is,” he said. “At the end of the day, when the project’s completed, come back and talk to me if it didn’t satisfy your thought process on how it should work when you donate, how well you feel about yourself and helping people around you.”

As far as Smith’s concerned, a plaque presented in honor of the contributors to the Wirtzberger Respite House speaks 1,000 words. “Everybody who’s on that plaque, a million thanks,” she said. “A million thanks to the BIA [for] just reaching out in the beginning to say, ‘We’re here, what can we do to help you, your family, and help the folks that you serve.’ That was just a huge opportunity to get involved and for them to know more about us.”

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