Service Projects Bring Bluer Skies to Local Communities

Julie H. Case

Team Rubicon Greyshirts served on more than 660 local service projects in 2023. These were some of their favorites.

volunteers and a homeowner posed on a walkway

Not all of Team Rubicon’s work is domestic disaster responses and international humanitarian aid operations; much of it also happens at the local level. Known as service projects, these local operations help Team Rubicon volunteers, or Greyshirts, serve within their own communities. Service projects are also how Team Rubicon builds capacity in communities across the United States—and within the Greyshirt TRibe—during blue skies.

Service projects comprise everything from laying sandbags before potential flooding for at-risk homeowners to helping low-income renters move out of condemned apartment buildings after a fire and so much more. Some service projects last for just a few hours and may serve just one or two members of a community. Others have Greyshirts teaming up with a partner organization to get more done for more people, and may even extend over weeks or months. 

In all, Greyshirts served on more than 660 service projects in 2023 and helped build capacity in hundreds of communities large and small across the nation. Here’s a look at some of Team Rubicon’s least noticed but most impactful service projects that happened last year.

Rerouting Future Floodwaters for Retired Service Members in Riverside, CA

When a Marine Corps veteran and California Highway Patrol officer and police dispatcher first moved into their Riverside, CA, home, it was surrounded by desert and farmland. As the area grew in popularity, however, houses popped up. Now, the home the couple has lived in for 40 years is surrounded by new construction—construction that also changed the way water flows onto their property. 

Now elderly, the couple needed help setting up a diversion wall to prepare for the winter storms and guide water away from their home into the street. So, on a Saturday in November of 2023, Greyshirts descended on the couple’s property with sandbags provided by Riverside County to conduct a flood mitigation service project that would help the two continue to live out their retirement in safety. Over the course of the day, Greyshirts created a 90-foot-long sandbag diversion wall along the side of the property to steer water and debris flows away from the couple’s back door. With 700 sandbags now strategically placed around the property, the couple is ready for whatever winter rains or atmospheric rivers may come.  

volunteers with sandbags
Greyshirts lay sandbags and create a diversion wall for a homeowner in Riverside.

For the Greyshirts who volunteered, the service project took on extra meaning. 

“We did not realize this when the request first came in, but when we talked to the couple, it turned out he is an 82-year-old Marine Corps veteran and a retired CHP officer, and she is a retired police dispatcher,” says Monika Barber, Team Rubicon operations associate for Southern California.. “The homeowners didn’t know that TR is a veteran lead organization, so when they found out that fact, it was extra meaningful and emotional to have us working there to serve them.”

A Ramp Project Leads to Restored Connections—and Bonsais—in Virginia

In December of 2023, Team Rubicon Greyshirts teamed up with Blue Ridge Habitat for Humanity in Edinburg, VA, to build a ramp and walkway to the home of Tommy, an Army veteran, and his wife, Wanda. Both had been diagnosed with a neurological condition that can cause impaired balance. Already, Wanda had fallen down the front steps several times, and Tommy had begun helping her by using a rope or straps. It was not an ideal situation for either. 

volunteer on cement path near new ramp
A Greyshirt fills in the gaps on the new sidewalk.

When Greyshirts arrived at the couple’s home, they found stairs leading from the house to an uneven natural walkway, which they immediately set out to replace. Over the course of the day, the Greyshirts removed rocks from around the home, built and installed a nearly 30-foot ramp that extended from the front door, and placed pavers that connected the ramp to the couple’s parking spot. 

Once finished, the new ramp became more than just a mobility device: it allowed them to begin attending church functions and services, which are a major part of their social life, and reconnected them to their support system. It also allowed them to get outside for exercise and gave Tommy the chance to start tending to his prized bonsai trees again. 

A Capacity-Building Project Supports Locals and Mitigates Future Disasters in Hawaii 

Whether it’s due to their idyllic nature or their far-distant location, the Hawaiian islands are often overlooked before disasters strike and quickly forgotten after. And, the very things that make them so enticing—lush tropical forests and volcanic mountains set between rugged coastlines—can also cut off entire communities if something does happen. 

The community of Hauʻula is one such place. Located on the northeast side of Oʻahu, it has the potential to be completely cut off from resources and the rest of the island in the event of a major disaster. To help mitigate this, the nonprofit Hui o Hauʻula is in the planning process of building the Koʻolauloa Community Resilience Hub, a state-of-the-art facility designed to sustain community members during and following natural disasters. Situated on a hillside that goes up to 94 feet above sea level, the KCRH site will even be home to an agroforest that will support food security in emergencies. 

rainforest with volunteers working
Greyshirts clear the forest in Oʻahu.

Hui o Hauʻula has already gained the support of community leaders and raised significant funds to support the project, and is now applying for a Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities grant from FEMA. To support these efforts, Team Rubicon began conducting service projects with Hui o Hauʻula last year, culminating with one at the KCRH site last fall that had Greyshirts clearing the site of invasive trees in advance of the building project. The Greyshirts’ work also helped prepare the site to be planted with the agroforest and counted as a match towards the FEMA BRIC application for the building of the resiliency hub. 

Another win on the capacity-building front? The local team also used ongoing service projects to conduct multiple saw classes and training events for Greyshirts, further expanding Team Rubicon’s ability to respond to future disasters across the islands.

Home Repair Projects Return Vietnam War Veterans to Better, More Livable Homes

When a Vietnam War veteran was forced from their Roanoke, VA, home by a power outage during a cold snap, several water lines froze and burst. Local nonprofit Renovation Alliance assisted with home repairs but asked Team Rubicon to step in first on a service project that would assist with the removal of water-damaged drywall and belongings. 

volunteers stand in front of a home
A service project at a veteran’s home in southwest Virginia.

Not long after, Greyshirts were asked to assist Renovation Alliance on a project for another veteran: This time, they would be replacing the original windows on the veteran’s home—which was built in the 1930s by their father, a WWI veteran—with new, energy-efficient windows. Initially, the scope of the project was outside of the typical Team Rubicon skillset, but after a quick tutorial from Renovation Alliance, Greyshirts were able to start working. 

During just a single day, Greyshirts replaced 20 windows and also managed to complete a couple of accessibility upgrades to the bathroom. While Renovation Alliance contractors were quite impressed with how efficient Greyshirts were in GSD with a totally new skill, the Greyshirts were more pleased with the results: for the first time in 60 years, the homeowners were able to open their windows.   

Three Service Projects Help a Helper in Houston

For years, a Houston Third Ward community resident has prioritized helping his neighbors recover from disasters. In 2023, at 82 and still trying to recover from multiple storms that had damaged his own property, it was the veteran’s time to be served by others. Over the course of three separate service projects, Greyshirts helped restore the property so that the homeowner could more easily focus on the service projects that mattered so much to him.

Greyshirts and Clay Hunt Fellows work around a veteran’s house in Houston.

First, in April, Greyshirts partnered with a local church group and helped lead the church’s youth in safely cleaning up much of the property. Next, with significant impact made, a second team of Greyshirts returned to the veteran’s home later in the spring to safely tackle tree and vegetative debris with chainsaws. Then, the Clay Hunt Fellows from Base Camps 12 and 13 finished the rest of the work during orientation, allowing them to get to know each other while also serving the community.

Greyshirts Help Resettle Refugees in Maine

When it comes to finding local service projects to engage in, being a member of the Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster can be a huge help. Take, for example, how it helped Greyshirts in Maine assist new refugees in the U.S. As a fellow VOAD member, the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine reached out to Team Rubicon with a chance to partner on some refugee resettlement projects. The JCA didn’t have the manpower for upcoming move-ins, but they knew who did: Team Rubicon. 

So, over the course of 2023, Greyshirts helped eight to 10 refugee families from various countries—including Syria, Rwanda, and Afghanistan—start new lives in the Pine Tree state. Together, they navigated narrow hallways, schlepped furniture up stairs, unloaded and staged household items, assembled beds, stocked cupboards with essential items from local stores, and cleaned and readied the homes. A move-in to an apartment in Lewiston even had Greyshirts getting creative: When a queen-size box spring would not make it up the stairwell, they hoisted it up and over the third-floor back porch balcony using roping and tie-downs. 

The Greyshirts serving on that service project were even fortunate to meet the new tenant, a 29-year-old man who shared, as he worked alongside them, that the had spent the last 23 years in a refugee camp in Congo after his family had been displaced from Rwanda by violence. Erick also explained how much he wanted to ensure everything was all set, clean, and nice for his family—his wife and 5-year-old son—who had all been living in temporary housing in Freeport since arriving in the state two months prior. 

Volunteer on a Service Project

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