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Groups help Miami veterans with home repairs and renovations

Theressia and Elvin Thompson have lived in the house more than a half-century where they raised a daughter, hosted family celebrations and watched as their Richmond Heights neighborhood, built specifically for African-American veterans, grew and blossomed.

But after all these years, the sunny yellow three-bedroom house had begun to wilt under the weight of time.

And when Tropical Storm Isaac’s deluge created leaks, Elvin Thompson fretted about the cost of repairs. But by Thursday, his worries were silenced by an act of kindness.

Some 40 volunteers descended on the modest home to complete a series of repairs and renovations as part of The Home Depot’s veteran initiative. The Home Depot Foundation partnered with Rebuilding Together Miami Dade, a nonprofit organization providing free rehabilitation services to low-income, seniors, military veterans and families and disabled homeowners. The repair efforts were funded by an $80,000 grant the foundation awarded to Rebuilding Together to help local veterans.

“This is a new day for us,’’ said Elvin Thompson, 83, watching as volunteers installed the last of the dining room laminate floor. “And after living here more than 50 years, our home was in need of repairs so this is truly a blessing and we are so grateful. Even a little paint job would have been an improvement and made our life nicer, and we got so much more.’’

More than 200 local Home Depot associates helped to repair and renovate the homes of five local military veterans — including the Thompsons — to kick off the foundation’s second annual Celebration of Service campaign, a two-month initiative to honor and support U.S. military veterans. The effort included work on more than 100 homes across the country on Thursday, the same day the foundation announced an additional $50 million commitment to veterans’ nonprofits over next three years.

“With more than one million service members transitioning out of the military over the next two years and with almost half of all veterans over the age of 55, we know many veterans are struggling with housing challenges and that this will continue in the foreseeable future,’’ said Kelly Caffarelli, president of the foundation. “We pledge to recognize and celebrate the service of all veterans by using our financial and volunteer resources to ensure these brave men and women have a safe, comfortable home.’’

Earlier this year, Elvin Thompson applied for the renovation program. The team, which started the improvements just after the roof began to leak and water trickled into the kitchen light fixtures, worked in small crews on 10-to-12 hour shifts over the last two weeks.

“I hadn’t figured out how we were going pay for the leaks yet,’’ said Thompson, who is on a fixed income.

With about $14,000 in supplies, the team made most everything old new.

The roof was repaired. The ceilings and walls, some peeling and damaged, were repaired and repainted in a soft cream color called Innocence. The floors, which had been a rough patchwork of tile and laminate and raw plywood in the master bedroom, were renewed with tile or laminate.The bathroom, once covered in aged pink and blue tiles, was gutted. Now the bath has new tiling, a tub, a toilet and a modern wood vanity. Almost every light or ceiling fan has been replaced. The exterior of the home was painted a softer yellow and the porch is now a handsome grey. The yard was given a facelift, too, with clusters of colorful plants.

Late summer showers slowed the work, but the volunteers promised to return Friday to finish.

Thompson, who grew up in Overtown, was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1949 as a senior at Florida A&M University. He served for 21 months in the Korean War, teaching fellow soldiers how to use and clean military weapons, from pistols to machine guns. He returned to Miami, married in 1955 and eventually became a manager at a Kosher food warehouse.

One day, Thompson took a leisurely drive down to Richmond Heights in unincorporated Miami-Dade County. Capt. Frank C. Martin, a white Pan American pilot, had purchased the property that would become Richmond Heights just after World War II and sectioned it off into tracts to give soldiers like Thompson returning from the wars a decent, affordable place to begin the next chapter.

Thompson did just that, saving up about $500 as a down payment for the house on Pierce Street. He purchased it for about $25,000 in 1959 and had a daughter six years later.

The house became the center of the Thompson gatherings as they hosted July Fourth celebrations and family breakfasts. Thompson said he and his wife have aged more gracefully than the house.

Hurricane Andrew ripped the roof off and smashed all the windows, and had its way on the inside, too. Since that storm 20 years ago, Theressia Thompson, 81, has wanted a new kitchen, at least cabinets to replace the originals which were rotted and would no longer close.

On Thursday, the volunteer team finished putting in brand new dark wood cabinets, a sink, countertop and appliances, all stainless steel. “I had been wanting a new kitchen for so long. I even dreamed about it,’’ she said. “In the dream, everything was new. Now I have it and it’s beautiful. Once everything is done, the first thing I am going to do is cook some turnip greens, pork chops and corn bread in my new kitchen.”