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Raising the Walls | By Jason Brady


When people have no one else to turn to, they often find their way to Ray Andrade. His official title is Nehemiah Project Coordinator, but he does it all, says his boss, Rusty Long, executive director of Fayetteville Urban Ministry, a faith-based organization that provides a host of community social help programs, from adult literacy and emergency assistance to Find-A-Friend programs. And then there’s the Nehemiah Project, which provides emergency home repairs to the needy, many of whom are elderly widows. “I’ve done everything from getting dead, smelly cats from under the house to squirrels in the attic,” Andrade said. But he does so much more. It may not be exactly what the biblical Nehemiah had in mind when the Old Testament prophet rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, but the Nehemiah Project is designed to create safer homes. Funding comes from federal community development block grants administered by the City of Fayetteville. But for Andrade, it’s more than hammer and nails. It’s about building relationships with clients living on fixed incomes and struggling to maintain a home with meager means. “They can do more with $800 than most young people can do with twice as much,” Andrade said. But the recent economic downturn has taken its toll on older Americans. While many were able to pay off their mortgages years ago, they can no longer afford the upkeep, Long said. Prices are up and eating into Social Security stipends. Andrade says he often sees people who never had to ask for help before. Many of them would rather feed stray cats then themselves or live with floors so dilapidated it’s possible to see the dirt beneath. There are even people still using firewood as their primary source of heat. Of course, Andrade delivers that firewood as well. Sue Byrd worked side-by-side with Andrade for 10 years. “He can fix anything,” she said. “He can do anything in construction. Just like Jesus, he has the hands of a carpenter. “They (the elderly) call him because they know he’ll come. They call him because they know he’ll do all he can to make them safe.” “You can find someone who has the heart but not necessarily the skills and you can find someone with the skills but not the heart,” Long says. “Andrade has both. Andrade is the program. He’s got the skill, he’s got the passion, that’s what makes him so special.” Fayetteville Urban Ministry started the Nehemiah Project in 1994, and Andrade came aboard late the next year. From 1996 to 2006, the project funded and coordinated home repairs for Operation Inasmuch, which in 2007 became its own non-profit organization and year-round ministry. The Nehemiah Project continued, spending about $120,500 last year alone on emergency home repairs. To qualify for the project, recipients must meet federal requirements and repairs must be true emergencies. Andrade is the one who meticulously qualifies clients, guiding them through the process. He is a Fayetteville native who graduated from Fayetteville High School in 1969, the year it officially became Terry Sanford. He was raised on North Street by his grandmother, which perhaps explains that special place in his heart for elderly clients. But he never especially liked school or paperwork. “I would rather work with my hands, doing something,” he said. He did, however, earn his Industrial Management degree from Fayetteville Technical Community College and went to work for the McLean family of Fayetteville builders. After the elder McLean passed, Andrade worked for himself, bidding on construction projects that took him all over North Carolina. But the time away from his family, especially his children, wore on him. In 1995, Andrade’s wife, Betsy, spotted an advertisement for the job at Fayetteville Urban Ministry. “I expected to stay for about a year,” he said. That was 15 years ago, and Andrade says he’s exactly where he wants to be. “It’s not just about hammers and nails,” he said, “it’s about helping people who have no one else to turn to.”