“Rupert! I’m mad at you!”
The voice belonged to a middle-aged woman at the house next door to the one we had just parked in front of.
Rupert’s eyes betrayed a weariness I hadn’t seen much since the gubernatorial campaign when we had him running all over the state every day.
“I wanted the city to tear that house down,” she added as Rupert met her at the bottom of the wooden ramp in front of her small bungalow house on Shelbyville’s Fair Avenue. The house next to hers was just purchased by Rupert’s mentoring program after it failed to sell in a tax sale.
Rupert and the woman were face to face at the bottom of the ramp. He responded in quiet tones that I recognized as his nurturing voice, honed through decades of mentoring teens and young adults. His right hand gently reached forward and touched her on the arm, in an attempt to calm her a bit. The neighbor dropped her voice to where I couldn’t hear more. Rupert was gently steering her toward the back of the side yards, between the houses, out of earshot.
The house in question was an older, two story home. Built back in the era when building codes were non-existent or rarely enforced, the brick foundation toward the back showed obvious distress. The neighbor lady was pointing to where it had caved in.
Eventually, their conversation ended. Shawn and Derone, two of the participants in the mentoring program were unloading a mower and wheelbarrow from the open trailer behind Rupert’s red SUV. One side of the turn-of-the-former-century home had a small pit along the side, underneath a rain gutter hanging askew, dangling down the side of the house. Rain water had caused the bricks of the house’s foundation to cave in underneath the damaged gutter, leaving a dark, gaping mouth to whatever lay below the house.
“Have you seen the inside?” Rupert asked me as I drifted back his way. I shook my head. “Come on in,” he said moving toward the shrubs and overgrowth of mulberry bushes that threatened to block the front porch.
He climbed the concrete steps to the front porch. It’s concrete slab was covered in faded and torn, formerly green, “astroturf” style outdoor carpeting. A long rip stretched across the front of the top step, causing the material to drape down the front of the stoop like a set of old drapes in an abandoned house. This was an abandoned house, I realized. A soft-drink can was lodged in the shrubs to the right of the steps.
Rupert ignored the faded yellow paper stuck to the glass of the storm door. “Notice of Grass Violation” wasn’t a concern. Derone was running the wide bodied commercial mower back and forth across the small city lot. Shawn was pulling the start cord on a gas-powered trimmer. Now that his mentoring program had the keys to the property, Rupert was serious about its improvement and upkeep.
Inside the small two story house, was a different story. The smell of mildew, and stale air assaulted me as I walked in. My asthma wasn’t going to like being in here long. The front sitting room of the structure had a sculpted shag carpet from several decades ago. It was littered with discarded magazines. A brick fireplace dominated the wall in the far side of the room. The house was old. Built at a time when the fireplace would have been a central heat source. The high ceilings that were common for buildings in that era, were mostly covered up with a modern drop ceiling. Its tiles were discolored with years of cigarette smoke, and neglect. The chimney was the drop ceiling’s greatest enemy. I spied signs of mold on the plaster along the upper ceiling, where rotted tiles had fallen away. The roof leaked around the brick of the chimney.
Rupert led me through the home. In its day, it would have been a fair house. A large kitchen, with a small section split off where the water closet would have been installed as indoor facilities became popular in the early 20th century.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Rupert asked?
I looked around the place. The broken glass from the door at the side of the house still littered the carpet in what would have been a formal dining room. The ceiling in the kitchen was peeling – wallpaper hung in strips. Local teenagers had evidently been visiting in the wee hours of the night. They hadn’t done much direct damage, but evidence of some destruction, like peeling the faded paper from the ceiling here, magazines littering the front room, and the broken window in the side door didn’t lead me to see any beauty in my surroundings.
I glanced at Rupert. He wasn’t seeing the present, I realized. His sight was fixed on the past, and the future. Just like he could see the potential for rehabilitation in the guys that came through his mentoring program, he saw what was special about this abandoned, dilapidated building, and envisioned what it could be – would be once he and his guys were finished working here.
Beneath a rough exterior
Kevin’s story took me by surprise. On one of my early visits this year to the new headquarters of Rupert’s Kids in Shelbyville, I was there to get some follow-up interviews about the program’s relocation, and the history and rehab of the old building that has become the future of Rupert’s Kids.
Rupert pointed at one of the guys; tall, thick, with close cropped hair. His face was lit up with a smile as he chatted with other guys in the building’s garage.
“Kevin got a new job. He starts today at three. You need to talk with him.” Rupert had his own smile peeking out of his unruly black beard. “Our first graduate leaving after only seven months in Shelbyville.” He was beaming like what he would have called a “proud papa.”
I set up my video camera in the upstairs great hall of the building. Kevin came upstairs, clad in his khaki shorts and red t-shirt, and told his story. I was puzzled. His jovial attitude didn’t match his story of being a mean person who “didn’t like people.” A few months later, when I was compiling and editing the videos you’ll find on this page, I delved back into my archived photos from earlier in the project. I went looking for photos I might have taken of Kevin working on the building rehab. What I found didn’t match the smiling, fun guy I interviewed later. The photos I found of him showed a sullen, withdrawn young man. Most of the guys were wearing jackets in the chill of our long Indiana winter that turned into a chilly spring. Kevin wore a dark hoodie in most of the photos, adding a few layers to ward off the Indiana chill, just like the other guys, But, Kevin always had his hood pulled up. A shield against people. Sullen was the word that came to mind for him as I explored the photos.
The change in him was dramatic. Early Kevin to later Kevin was a new person. Rupert had found the gem hidden inside the gruff exterior. With a lot of elbow grease, and hard work, he had worn away the rough exterior, and got Kevin to knock the chip off his own shoulder.
“Property Manager sounds better than ‘House Mom’,” Rupert said as he explained his vision for Kevin in the near future, “when we get the apartments setup, and get the guys right out of the detention center,” he waved toward a commercial building he had just purchased, one block over in downtown Shelbyville. It had a commercial area downstairs, and, what appeared to me, as an old brothel upstairs. A small, but full apartment sat overlooking the main street, with a series of “sleeping rooms,” a shared bath, and a shared kitchen in the back end of the long building.
Rupert planned on having Kevin move into the apartment and oversee the future participants, fresh from prison, just beginning their time in Rupert’s mentoring program. “Kevin will be the guy who makes sure they get out of bed and over here to work every day.” Rupert dreams big – but he’s building his dream here in Shelbyville. I could only nod in agreement, waiting to see what other gems in the rough he’d uncover.
Fixing the foundations
It was in that dank, damp shallow basement I found myself a few weeks later. The house on Fair Avenue was built at a time when building code enforcement was lax, and foundations were not as strong as required by today’s codes. The little house had a brick foundation, with a hand dug basement added after the original house was built. The basement didn’t extend out to the foundation. Instead, the house sat on rows of bricks. The basement, with it’s newer concrete walls, were inset a good two or three feet inside of the house’s outer perimeter. Whoever added the basement didn’t want to have to jack the house up, and support it, while redoing the foundation.
Scott, the brick and block mason who was working for Rupert on the building had been rebuilding the foundation walls down here for the past few weeks.
“The original [brick foundation] didn’t even go down past the front line,” he said pointing at the next section down, where Miah was swinging a pickaxe, while two men were filling plastic buckets with the dirt Miah was knocking loose. Shawn, a participant in the mentoring program, and Scott’s son Wes, just out of high school – who was adding extra labor for the project – slid their shovels into the loose soil as Miah stepped back. Several of the five-gallon buckets were filled quickly, and passed up and out the sidewall to two more participants from Rupert’s program waiting outside. They’d dump the dirt into an ever growing, long pile along the fence line in the back yard.
They were removing the block and brick from the inner basement wall, and the bricks from the house’s shallow foundation three feet farther out. Then they’d knock the dirt berm between the two sections loose, and pull the soil out in those buckets. The basement was slowly growing in size as the crew worked on correcting the mistakes of the past, and giving the building a new foundation.
Shawn and Wes stepped back as Miah moved toward the earthen wall. The pickaxe swung a short arc at head height due to the cramped quarters. Dirt tumbled loose as the outside edge of the basement crept slowly outward, toward the line two feet away where the old brick foundation had been removed. Another swing. The curved metal blade knocked more and more dirt loose. More buckets were filled and passed up. The pile of soil in the backyard grew longer, snaking it’s way along the wooden fence, like a large brown worm seeking a new home.
Scott and Rupert were laying block in the rear of the basement. A long section of the exterior wall had already replaced the missing section I saw two weeks earlier. The section which had crumbled as the rain gutters had overflowed and washed away the building’s old, shallow foundation stood with a new wall of concrete blocks ready to support the structure above. Temporary house jacks – long steel posts with screw jacks provided temporary support to the structure above. The concrete blocks they had removed from the walls ahead of Miah’s pickaxe were being recycled by Scott as he built new support walls in the basement.
Scott’s trowel grabbed another pile of mortar from a plastic tub near his feet. He scraped it along the row of blocks, making a small ridge of wet mortar. Once the row was coated, Rupert had a block ready to set. They positioned the cinder block on the growing wall. Scott used the back end of his trowel handle to tap the block a bit farther in, trying to get the bubble on the level centered in between the lines. Tap, adjust, tap, adjust. Once the block was plumb, he positioned the level atop the block. Tap. The trowel handle bumped it down a bit, leveling the block front to back.
Eventually, I ventured outside to photograph the guys working out there as they dumped the buckets, and carried away the bricks from the old foundation that were slowly being knocked loose.
Derone was one of those on bucket duty then. He was passing now empty buckets back down to those in the basement. A few minutes later, Miah and the others breaking the soil came up for a break. Cigarettes came out, thumbs flicked across lighters. Joel came around the corner. “Drive me to Little Ceasars?” he asked Miah.
“Lunch?” Miah asked, taking a long drag off her e-vapor device.
Joel nodded. “For everyone.”
Once they headed out, Shawn told me about his day in court.
Two weeks earlier, I was talking with Shawn at the Rupert’s Kids building. This was the day before he was going to court to be sentenced for his pending felony — the one he had been trying to get reduced for the past two years. Shawn was worried that his one pair of “nice pants” might not be appropriate for appearing before the judge. Evidently, the dark jeans he had said were the only pair of pants that weren’t torn or work stained hadn’t been a detriment.
I wasn’t sure, when I arrived at the house two weeks later where Shawn would be. He was there that day. Not in jail.
“How’d that go?” I asked.
“I got house arrest and probation,” he said as he worked carrying bricks from the side of the house out to the work truck parked at the curb. “The judge wanted to put me back in for a few months. But I’m on a drug treatment plan – prescriptions and meetings – I’m about three quarters through it. In jail, they don’t let you take it [the prescription] in there.” He dropped the bricks into the work truck where Wes was arranging them into neat rows. They’d be taken back to the Rupert’s Kids building, and stored, awaiting use on rebuilding part of this house, or on another project. Rupert hardly ever threw out building materials that could be re-used. Just like he saw value in guys like Shawn and Kevin, who had some trouble in their past, he always saw potential to repurpose usable scraps from construction.
“Rupert was there.” Shawn continued. “The judge wasn’t happy – said he’d look soft with the level of sentence I was getting. But, I’d have to start the treatment all over once I came out.” He smiled. Relieved. I knew from our past conversations what he had worried about with the impending sentence. With this penalty – house arrest – whenever he wasn’t working with Rupert – then probation, and keeping up with his drug program, he would be able to keep bringing home the steady paycheck from Rupert’s Kids. His wife and kids would be able to have him around, a roof over their heads, and food on their table.
Miah sent me the following information on their basement reconstruction, a few weeks later. The next day they’d be laying the last three blocks to finish the new basement walls. She estimated they used more than 500 blocks, 250 bags of concrete, 200 bags of mortar, and about 1,500 buckets of dirt removed, with some of that backfilled outside against the new basement walls. Rupert had told me early on that the city had been ready to tear this old house down, before he got it. Mayor DeBaun had stopped by this past week. Miah said he was very impressed. “Now they believe us when we tell them we can do anything.”
Rupert, I realized, is rebuilding more than just the house’s foundation. Slowly, the guys from Shelbyville that had found their way into his mentoring program, are turning their own lives around. As for the neighbors, both on Fair Avenue, near the little house, and within the rest of Shelbyville, Rupert and his guys are attempting to prove themselves to be good neighbors. Rebuilding themselves as well as the houses and buildings of the town.