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Building on an opportunity; Volunteers inspire East Side neighborhood by converting ruined Southampton house

The house at 276 Southampton St. was slated for demolition.

The century-old two-story structure was in a state of terrible disrepair. There were holes in the floor. The ceilings sagged. A toilet had overflowed, causing extensive water damage.

Elizabeth Triggs took one look at it last fall and saw the dilapidated house as an opportunity and a challenge.

"The inspector came out and said: 'Tear it down,' " Triggs said. "I said: 'Oh, no no no. You will not tear this one down. We will take it over.' "

Through Housing Court, she bought the house for $1 for her outreach organization, None Like You/We Care.

In the months since, Triggs -- well known on Sycamore Street for transforming vacant lots into beautiful community gardens -- has brought in literally hundreds of volunteers to help her fix the house and turn it into a community center.

"This is going to show people we can take our old stocks and rebuild them, make them better than what they are now. They're tearing down a lot of houses and making our neighborhoods look bad," Triggs said.

Her goal is not just to save the house, but to show young people and the community around the house that they can make a difference in their neighborhood.

"We're showing this neighborhood that is dying with crime, dying with no finances that for once, this house is not being torn down. That somebody that [doesn't] have any money is showing us if they can do it, we can do it," Triggs said.

Triggs believes it's already beginning to change attitudes on Southampton Street.

She recalled a November morning she came to the house off of Jefferson Avenue while waiting for some volunteers to arrive.

A woman who lived next door came by and asked Triggs what she was doing. "I brought her in, and she said: 'You got your work cut out for you. I'm going to make you breakfast.' "

Triggs informed her that she had 50 volunteers coming.

"She made breakfast for everybody," Triggs said.

Other neighbors have been welcoming of the project as well, letting the volunteers use their water and even their bathrooms. After Triggs began planting flowers in the garden outside the house, other neighbors followed suit. "Now everyone has gardens," she said.

Others have come by asking for advice on fixing their homes.

When it's done, Triggs said, the house will be dubbed the Willie Canty Healthy Home Education and Resource Program, named for one of her volunteers who died a few years ago. She wants it to be a place where people can learn about fixing up their old homes and young people can get together safely.

A formidable woman with an amazing knack for persuading just about everyone she meets to volunteer for her causes, Triggs has enlisted dozens of teenagers from the East Side to work on the house.

"I just like it," said Rande Mosley, 16, a student at the Maritime Charter School. "The drywall, the whole construction thing. I really do."

Another teen, Romel Ford, 16, who goes to Bennett High School, wrote a touching letter to Triggs after she threatened to kick him out of the program for failing to show up for work.

"I have realized that I can help the community by making it look better and by putting smiles on people's faces," he wrote.

Teens aren't the only ones participating. Several judges have sent scores of defendants to do their community service at the house.

"She's taught them positive things and made them feel good about themselves," said City Judge James McLeod, who stopped by to visit the house on a recent Thursday.

Volunteers have come from around the region as well, including many from Daemen College and Buffalo State College. This week, a group of University at Buffalo staffers are slated to come help her build a deck as part of United Way's Day of Caring.

Maurice Sheehan of Central Heating & Cooling is donating his company's services. Electricians with Community Electric are putting in all new wiring.

There's still much work to be done on the house. Triggs is busy trying to find a certified plumbing contractor to put in all new pipes, a roofer, someone to do the siding and someone who can fill in the basement to prevent flooding when it rains.

Triggs admits there are days when she thinks she's in over her head.

"I look at this house some days and say: 'Why are we here?' And then when I see the people coming in that have problems and they leave out of here doing things It makes us say: 'Why are we tearing things down? Why are we moving things away? The reason we're saving this house is this neighborhood really wants it.' "