(This is a special report from the Brenda Barton Memorial Build. Coming soon will be a special report at FullerCenter.org on the Fuller Center Disaster ReBuilders’ work as a whole in the Houston area. Coming later this year will be a special report from the Disaster ReBuilders’ work in North Carolina.)
In all her years of helping Fuller Center for Housing covenant partners, suppliers and supporters do the work of building and repairing homes for families in need of a hand-up, Brenda Barton never sought accolades, the spotlight or even recognition for her tireless work.
After the world lost this true Christian servant when Brenda died after a brief illness in January of this year, friends immediately began to contemplate how to honor someone who did not like to be honored — someone whose last wishes even denied the world a chance to say goodbye through a funeral or memorial service.
Among those with whom she worked most closely over the past two years were leaders of the Fuller Center Disaster ReBuilders, who are now at work in both Texas and North Carolina after the two states were hit by devastating hurricanes and subsequent flooding in 2017 and 2018, respectively. They decided that they would build a home in her memory and celebrate her life with a one-week Brenda Barton Memorial Build in Dickinson, Texas.
Brenda would have hated the thought of a build in her name, but she would have loved the result — attention for the work of The Fuller Center and Disaster ReBuilders, as well as a new home for Dorothy Thomas, whose home was so badly damaged by Hurricane Harvey’s flooding that repairs were not even possible. It will forever be known as “The House That Brenda Built,” as evidenced by the plaque affixed to the front of the home on Friday.
“She was the glue that held everything together,” said Renee Hooks, who was recruited by Millard Fuller and Glen and Brenda Barton to help jump-start The Fuller Center’s first U.S. builds in Shreveport, Louisiana and who came to Dickinson this week with daughter Maya to work and honor Brenda’s memory. “Brenda and I became personal friends instead of just co-workers. Brenda and I were extremely close.”
Maya was in elementary school when she first got to know the Bartons but recalled how both Glen and Brenda showed them love with Glen even surprising a young Maya with flowers at a school performance.
“Because my mom and Ms. Brenda were so close and I knew Ms. Brenda well, I came here to show respect,” added Maya, a nursing student in college who is not as familiar with the flow of a build week as is her mom. “This is completely out of my comfort zone, but I’m really enjoying myself. I’ve learned so much being here.”
It has been a week of reflection about Brenda’s life but also one of joy and celebration. Fuller Center Disaster ReBuilders leader Bart Tucker was among those devastated by the news of Brenda’s passing in January. He knows that a build bearing her name might not be something to which Brenda would ever have agreed.
“I think there’s a lot of us that are still dealing with the way we lost her,” Tucker said. “Part of that had to do with her secrecy about her condition and failing health. We felt it sort of robbed us of an opportunity to say goodbye in a fashion that we wanted to.”
Fuller Center for Housing co-founder Linda Fuller was among those shocked to learn Brenda was admitted to the hospital just days before she died. While devastated, it was no surprise that Brenda had kept her dire diagnosis quiet even to the end.
“She was a very private person,” said Fuller, who worked on The House That Brenda Built the final two days of the build week, along with husband Paul Degelmann. “She always put others first. She just threw her whole self into making miracles happen, really. She loved to work behind the scenes and not get any kind of praise or recognition. We’re going to miss her a lot. A lot of people are.”
Cathy Smith is now The Fuller Center’s Associate Director of U.S. Programs and has taken on many of the duties Brenda once held. She was one of Brenda’s closest friends and took advantage of this week’s opportunity to get out of the office, come back to her native Texas and to honor her friend.
“It does feel weird, but she’s not here so she can’t tell us stop and don’t do it,” said Smith, agreeing Brenda never was much for attention. “We needed to do something, and I’m glad that we could do it this way.”
Smith, who grew up in nearby Santa Fe, Texas, added that the trip also was an opportunity to spend time with her mother and see family while reaffirming her appreciation for the hard work of volunteers.
“It’ll be good to get back to the office,” she said as rain poured down Friday afternoon. “I admire these people to do this work in this heat, fighting the rain. AmeriCorps and the Amish who came down, nothing can stop them.”
Peter Salemme is the Fuller Center Disaster ReBuilders’ construction director and has been a leader on numerous Fuller Center and Habitat for Humanity builds. He noted that the shingles on the roof of Dorothy Thomas’ home — as well as another new home going up on nearby Wyoming Avenue — were the result of Brenda’s connections with World Vision, which donated 16 pallets to the Disaster Rebuilders that were split between operations in Dickinson and in New Bern, N.C. She never told anybody she was sick even as she made sure someone would be available to pick up the donated supplies.
“It’s kind of fitting that the shingles are the shingles that she got us,” he said with a smile. “She was a hard worker, dedicated, had a servant’s heart and wouldn’t let up. If she had something in front of her that had to be done, she worked together with people, wouldn’t take no for an answer. She was just real driven.”
While many people reminisced Friday about their many years of knowing Brenda, others like Barry and Marcy Dobil noted that it didn’t take long for her to make an impression. They first encountered Brenda in Atlantic City during the 2013 Millard Fuller Legacy Build following SuperStorm Sandy. They were impressed with the way Brenda juggled the multiple issues with cool composure, even during a 20-plus-home blitz and even when a couple from Allentown, Pa., showed up a day later than they had hoped.
“She was so kind and made me feel so comfortable and put me at ease,” Marcy said. “In three minutes, she became a friend to me.”
Barry said that Brenda epitomized the kind of efficiency that he looks for in researching nonprofits he supports, adding that he appreciates that more than 88 percent of Fuller Center revenues go directly to program work in the field.
“Brenda was so efficient and Fuller Center is so efficient,” he said. “There’s very little administrative costs, so you know that what you’re donating in dollars or in your effort is going toward the cause. Brenda epitomized that. She was efficient. She knew the task at hand and took it on — no excuses.”
That Brenda never sought the kind of accolades and attention that was thrust upon her memory this week is something Salemme can appreciate. For years, he has quietly gone about his business of extending a hand-up to people in need of decent places to live and coaching volunteers while never seeking accolades himself. Brenda’s selfless vision of Christian service is one he believes in.
“It’s what Jesus taught — to live a life of unconditional service to others,” Salemme said. “I always tell the volunteers it’s a well-kept secret what Jesus taught about unconditional giving. Until you try it, there’s no real way to know. It’s kind of liberating to do God’s will, to do what He wants.”
PHOTO GALLERY — Highlights from the Brenda Barton Memorial Build: