Sharon Tepper spends much of her time caring for underprivileged children. As Tepper walks through the halls of the Rainbow House, a Columbia children’s shelter where she serves as executive director, one of the children looks up to her and says with a pouty face, “There’s too many beds in my room.” Tepper, with a half smile, acknowledges the child as though she’s heard such complaints before.
Soon, Tepper and her staff of 23 employees and nearly 40 volunteers will have that problem solved.
A new building is currently under construction for the Rainbow House, and builders hope to complete it by the end of May. The new building, 1611 Towne Drive, comes at the right time for Tepper, who says recent inspections of the current house were yielding results that could have led to the end of her operation.
“Site reviewers were asking many questions that could lead to shutting us down,” Tepper said.
Plans to build the 11,500-square-foot house came up about three years ago, Tepper said. The land for the new building was purchased in spring 2003, and construction began in September.
One glaring problem inspectors had with the old house, 2302 Oakland Gravel Road, is that it contains only one bathroom for as many as 12 children. Regulations require that one bathroom be available for every four children, Tepper said. Another regulation requires that each bedroom be of a certain square footage, and none of them meet the requirement, Tepper said. To get by, Rainbow House must be granted variance by the state.
The current building has been standing for nearly 90 years and has been home to Rainbow House since its inception in 1986. Each year since, nearly 200 youths, ages 18 and younger, have been admitted to the house. Children usually stay from 10 days to two weeks, Tepper said, depending on their situations. They may stay for a maximum of 30 days and, in a sudden crisis, might only stay a couple of days, Tepper added.
Admission is sometimes a struggle in the current building. The cramped quarters and lack of privacy make it difficult to pair children based on age, or in some cases, for entirely different reasons.
“Say we have a 12-year-old boy who is sexually active and we need to house a 14-year-old girl with him; we can’t do that,” said Bill Lloyd, president of the Rainbow House Board of Directors. “The new house will have enough security for us to be able to arrange for that to happen without safety concerns.”
Aside from logistical concerns, Tepper and Lloyd have concerns about the building’s structure, as well. Problems with the plumbing, deterioration of the interior of the house and the small size of the house are other reasons for the move.
“I know of one instance where a volunteer turned on the water in the bathroom and brown water came out of the pipes in the shower,” said Lloyd.
“The sink on the third floor is coming off of the wall,” Tepper said. “Right now, it’s fixed with duct tape to keep it secure. The pipes are really corroded. Also, the layout doesn’t really go well for kids of different ages. That house has seen its due and will need major renovation in the future.”
“We’re licensed for 12 kids, no matter what building we’re in,” Lloyd said. “In the old house, we can’t house 12 kids for various reasons.”
Several amenities will aid the staff in the new house. A garage, which the current house lacks, will be used for storage and as a recreation area for children. Another large improvement is that the kitchen and dining rooms will be larger, and the added space will create more unity between kids and staff, Tepper said.
“We will have a larger kitchen with a center island,” Tepper said. “Kids love doing fun things in the kitchen. We live like a family; we like to sit down as a family for dinner, and in the new house, we’ll be able to do that more comfortably.”
Tepper and most of the staff actually work across the street from the shelter in the Child Advocacy Center. Car traffic on the street causes another problem because whenever employees or children have to go between buildings, they have to cross the busy street. In the new building, the advocacy center and shelter will be together.
Construction of the new building has been done primarily through volunteer efforts and other free labor. Erv Mertzlufft, who has overseen much of the construction since it started, said things such as the surveying, concrete pouring, bricklaying, wiring and earth moving have been free. In addition, Mertzlufft said many materials have been discounted.
Retired since 1993, Mertzlufft has worked closely with Habitat for Humanity for many years since his retirement. It was through his connections at Habitat for Humanity that Mertzlufft discovered the opportunity to work to build the new Rainbow House. Mertzlufft admitted the job is hard work but said he’s more than willing to work for such a good cause.
“It’s a shame that a community has to have a house like this,” Mertzlufft said. “But it’s the least we can do for them. It’s a good organization. My pay is the good feeling I get out of doing it.”
Although construction is nearing completion, Lloyd said the fund-raising for the $1.2 million project is not complete. Lloyd estimated that nearly $400,000 still needs to be raised for the project, and donations are being accepted.
For the staff and board, anticipation is growing to get into the new building. Although construction has slowed recently because of additions in the plans, both Lloyd and Tepper said they’re excited about what the new house will mean for the organization.
“I’m really, really pleased,” Tepper said. “I’m almost relieved to get out of the old house. I’m just delighted.”