Jeff Thomson appreciates the importance of skilled workers on projects that provide affordable housing for people in need. That’s why he was thrilled when members of Hutchinson, Kan., Local 661 volunteered to help renovate a duplex that will be home to two military veterans and their families.

“Electricity for this house would have broken me,” said Thomson, a project coordinator for Interfaith Housing Services in Hutchinson, a town of about 42,000 residents in south-central Kansas. “It would have put me at least $10,000 over budget.”

Thanks to the work of Local 661, that won’t be the case.

“It made the difference in the house sitting there for another year and me trying to find money to pay for it instead of vets living it in 2017,” he added.

The duplex is expected to be occupied by this summer. Local 661 members have volunteered on community projects before, but this was the first time they had a chance to do so while using the skills they know best, Business Manager Nathan DeBerry said. That’s actual electrical work.

Hutchinson, Kan., Local 661 members stand in front of a duplex they are helping to renovate that will provide housing for two military veterans and their families. Daniel Mansur (back row, third from right), a member of the Kansas National Guard who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, was among the volunteers.

“We make a pretty decent wage,” DeBerry said. “We’re brothers and sisters. We need to help each other out.”

Added Local 661 president Gavin Taylor: “We had guys coming together for one cause, to help out the less fortunate.”

The project has been big news in Hutchinson since last summer. A property owner of a nursery donated an old house he considered demolishing. Instead of tearing it down, he donated it to IHS and paid to have it moved.

DeBerry saw what was happening. He and other local officials envisioned it providing plenty of opportunities. The most important was helping families in need, but it also allowed journeymen and apprentices to work on home construction.

Local 661 has been frozen out of the residential market for years because its signatory contractors say there is little money to be made, DeBerry said. They are working for ways to make it more affordable and successfully bid on home construction jobs, he said. The project provided members a chance to hone those skills.

“I thought it was an opportunity to give our apprentices a chance they might not normally get and make us more competitive and give back to our community at the same time,” DeBerry said. “I want to kick this ball down the hill and see what happens.”

Local 661 had a personal connection, too. Brothers Josh and Daniel Mansur are members. Daniel and wife Liz are U.S. Army veterans who served several tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Liz is the co-owner with Molly Mansur, Josh’s wife, of L&M Electric, a Local 661 signatory contractor based in Hutchinson.

L&M supplied the license to allow about 20 Local 661 members volunteer on the project. The Mansur brothers also worked on the project themselves.

“Anything we can do to show people in the community what the IBEW actually means, we want to be there,” Josh said. “We have families and we want to do what we can to help people.”

And finally, the project tells people in an area long known as antiunion that IBEW brothers and sisters are determined to make their communities better, DeBerry said. Kansas became a right-to-work state in 1958 and the law is part of the state’s constitution. DeBerry and Taylor said the antiunion sentiment is even more pronounced in smaller towns like Hutchinson, which is about 35 miles from Wichita.

“If we go to a larger job around here, we’re usually the only union craft,” Taylor said.

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and the large GOP majorities in the Kansas Legislature have made it virtually impossible to enact any meaningful reform to aid working families in recent years.

“The public perception of unions in our jurisdiction is very poor,” DeBerry said. “Most of it is very rural and our state bleeds red. We want to change the mindset of some people. We want to let them know all we’re trying to do is help and give back to the community that gives us so much.”

They’ve made a believer out of Thomson. He said Local 661’s involvement from the outset and a grant from the Veterans Administration encouraged other groups to volunteer for the project.

“I’m sorry I didn’t meet him sooner,” he said of DeBerry. “He comes at everything with the right attitude and the vigor that it needs. He’s been great to work with.”