August 19, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Tom Pettigrew was working as a banker at Wells Fargo in the summer of 1989 when his boss approached with a proposition: Would he help coordinate a new public service project?

The plan was to paint houses for low-income elderly and permanently disabled residents. Pettigrew and his team set a goal of painting 10 houses in the Omaha area. But after gathering a group of volunteers, they ended up painting 50 homes that first year.

“It wasn’t being done by anyone,” Pettigrew says. “We said it was like a barn raising, and people came out to help.”

The Brush Up Nebraska Paint-A-Thon is entering its 27th year this summer. Pettigrew, now age 72, remains the program’s co-director alongside his wife, Sheila, 69. The community-wide activity will culminate on the third Saturday of August, with the help of more than 1,800 volunteers.

It’s a project the couple feel passionate about. They started a program in Omaha and have been asked to start programs in South Dakota, in Wisconsin, and across Iowa from Atlantic to Cedar Rapids.

In the U.S., there are 22 million low-income homeowners, many of whom live on social security or an income of less than $1,000 per month. Many of these people are concerned about paying for groceries, not repainting their homes.

“There’s no way they’re going to get this done if someone doesn’t help,” Tom says.

The work builds confidence and makes the homeowners happy, but it also helps them financially.

“In order to get insurance, a lot of times a home has to be painted and in good shape,” Tom says.

Pettigrews1The Pettigrews and their board work with the Department of Health and Human Services to collect the names and addresses of people who need help having their homes painted. They coordinate the volunteers and hand out housing assignments a month before the event.

“That way they have the time to evaluate what they need,” Tom says. “They go to the homeowners, who pick out their paint color.”

The Pettigrews coordinate the donation of supplies and hold a training session on how to scrape, prime, and paint a home. They instruct volunteers on how to properly remove lead paint if they encounter it.

Then, they stand back, and have faith that their volunteers know their jobs.

“On paint day we drive around and see as many houses as possible. The people will be busy, and happy,” Sheila says. “We are not a repair project, yet we find a lot of them will repair things like windowsills. They plant flowers, rake leaves. It’s wonderful.”

“Hal Daub came to paint one year,” Tom says with a smile. “A boy from the neighborhood came over to see what was going on, and Hal taught him to repair screens.”

The couple are astonished and humbled by the way their passion project has grown through the years.

Tom says, “to have teams come back year after year is impressive. We have people who do this year after year, and we’ve gotten to know many of them.”

It isn’t just the individuals that come back. Tom no longer works for Wells Fargo, but the company still puts together teams and paints six homes each year. Other corporations, such as Union Pacific, participate each year. The paint is always donated by Diamond Vogel.

All this work has added up to the brushing-up of 2,724 homes, while building a network of extended friends bonded to their community.

“We get a tremendous amount of satisfaction from this,” Tom says. “We enjoy putting people together to get this done.”

“We meet wonderful people,” Sheila says. “We have friends that we’ve known for 20-some years through this project.”

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