IBEW electricians light up skyscrapers, theme parks, stadiums and other mega-projects, but sometimes the most fulfilling job is as simple as rewiring a broken socket or brightening a dark room in an aging home.
|Nearly 200 members of St. Louis Local 1 poured their union pride and energy into the community’s annual Rebuilding Together project in April, providing 15 homeowners with badly needed repairs and renovations.
Just ask any of the hundreds of St. Louis Local 1 members who've spent a spring Saturday over the past two decades making badly needed electrical repairs at low-income homes through a community program called Rebuilding Together.
"It's one of my favorite outreach projects that we do," said Tim Cleveland, foreman at one of 15 houses the organization selected for 2022. "It fills my heart. And it's a blast."
His fellow journeyman and friend Aly Martinez marveled at the difference they're able to make in a matter of hours.
"To see the look on their faces, to show them that 'now there's a working light in your laundry; you don't have to carry a flashlight down to wash your clothes' or 'now you can plug your phone into the outlet next to your bed without worrying about sparks or fire,'" Martinez said. "I'm just so thankful that I can do that for them."
Smiles, hugs and plates of cookies are some of the instant rewards. But this year, the Missouri Community Service Commission offered its gratitude as well, presenting a Show Me Award to Local 1 and its NECA partners at the Electrical Connection.
Together they've donated more than $2.3 million in labor and materials over the past 19 years.
The true value is priceless, as Reggie Moore found out in April.
An Army Reserve veteran who was disabled several years ago in a car accident, Moore, 63, knew that his 600-square-foot brick house urgently needed repairs he couldn't afford.
High on that list, all electrical outlets on the main floor were defective. "I had extension cords running everywhere," he said. "It definitely was a fire hazard."
But until Cleveland and his team showed up with their tools in April, Moore had no idea the extent of the dangers inside his home, including exposed wires in his kitchen that turned out to be live.
It chills him to think about the what-ifs. "My grandchildren at any time could have touched those wires," he said. "Thank God they didn't."
The wires were part of a perilous mess left by an inept repairman who took Moore's money and ran.
"We see this all the time," Local 1 Business Manager Frank Jacobs said. "People hear a good pitch from a so-called 'handyman' who has no business trying to make electrical repairs. They leave behind hazardous conditions that we are frequently called upon to repair and bring up to code."
Rebuilding Together stressed that point in nominating the Electrical Connection for the state award.
"The repairs and upgrades vary — a new ceiling fan, light fixture or bathroom vent, improvements to electrical panels, new switches and sockets," they wrote. "But it is the trained eye of the skilled electrician that uncovers the most critical issue needing repair: faulty wiring."
Volunteers inspected every nook and cranny of Moore's home, repairing what could be fixed and installing fresh wiring and lighting fixtures wherever needed. That included a new bathroom in Moore's basement that other trades workers finished on a subsequent weekend.
|Tim Cleveland and Aly Martinez, pictured at their regular job site, served as foremen on two of the 15 Rebuilding Together projects. Both volunteers have participated in the annual event for most of their years as St. Louis Local 1 members.
"Used to be that all trades went on the same day," Cleveland said. "You'd end up working on top of each other."
He laughed, saying that even now, "it kind of looks a little mayhemish when you get 10 guys in one home and everybody trying to do something."
Moore's gratitude was clear as he talked about the IBEW and other Rebuilding Together partners, whose gifts of labor and materials improved and secured his home like never before.
"I feel so blessed," he said. "There was a time that I could help people and do things myself to keep my home up. But physically I just can't do it anymore. And I didn't have the funds. Prices are going up, materials are going up. I just didn't have the funds at all."
Six miles north of Moore's neighborhood, Martinez served as foreman at a ranch-style home that ached for repairs.
In addition to upgrading wires and receptacles, volunteers installed new lights in her basement, kitchen and other rooms, swapped out floodlight bulbs, made sure motion sensors worked, put a ceiling fan in her dining room and replaced one with drooping blades on the back porch.
Martinez found a kindred spirit as she chatted with the homeowner, who, like Moore, was disabled in an accident.
"She has the same kind of attitude that I do — that you get up and do what you can and if it's not everything, that's OK, because you can get up tomorrow and try again," Martinez said.
Her own struggles and resolve made for a unique path into the IBEW in her early 30s. She was living in Atlanta, raising four children, going through a divorce and taking any and every job she could, from fast food and waitressing to selling cars, even a stint as a corrections officer.
A neighbor in similar straits had been nudged to consider the trades. When she headed to Atlanta Local 613 to apply, she suggested Martinez come along.
"I said, 'Yeah, that sounds great. I've always loved to work with my hands — I'm kind of afraid of electricity, but OK,'" she said with a laugh.
She got over it, was accepted quickly and launched a career that still thrills her. Eight years ago, she took it on the road, moving her family to St. Louis. Today she is president of Missouri Women in Trades.
Cleveland was one of her first friends at Local 1. His path into the IBEW was more traditional, influenced by a father who was an electrical engineer at Bell Telephone and an uncle who was a journeyman wireman. After four years in the Navy seeing the world, he joined his brother as an apprentice.
"It's grown to my uncle, older brother, myself, my younger brother, two other uncles, two cousins my daughter is now an apprentice and I have a nephew in there was well," he said. "It's a family affair."
Other than four years working with a Local 613 crew in Afghanistan, Cleveland has been a steady Rebuilding Together volunteer since the IBEW came aboard in 2004. Martinez has taken part nearly every year since her move; this year her daughter, a third-semester apprentice, was part of her team.
Helping seniors, people with disabilities, single mothers like she was, or others in need reminds Martinez how far she's come.
"I was there. I was struggling. I was on welfare and food stamps and had people judging me with my kids," she said. "I know what it's like to not have the money to do the things that need to get done. To be able to give back, to serve my community and represent the union that makes it possible for me to have the job I have and love, it's amazing."