At first glance, it is not at all obvious that Jim Coburn started his career designing high-end interiors for big corporations. Wearing cargo shorts and a faded tee shirt that has seen many hard working days, Jim apologizes for his attire. “Sorry for my appearance! I just came from the warehouse.”
Jim is Operations Manager for Rebuilding Together Philadelphia, the local affiliate of the national nonprofit, Rebuilding Together. The mission of his organization is to provide free home repair services to low income residents with a focus on the elderly, the disabled, families with children, and veterans.
Jim works with community organizations, corporations, and concerned citizens to organize “build days” in which hundreds and sometimes a thousand volunteers come out to rehab a whole city block of homes in only a few days. These homes receive critical repairs like new roofing, plumbing, electrical units and quick fixes like painting and cleaning. There are usually four sets of build days every year, happening in different areas of the city from Mantua to North Philadelphia.
In recognition of his excellent work, Jim recently received a Rising Star award from the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations this spring.
From Interior Designer to Nonprofit Manager
How does an interior designer end up improving the homes and lives of low-income homeowners? There were a few twists and turns along the way, but one of the key stops on the journey was the Community Design Collaborative.
Recalling his first internship and job at a commercial and corporate interior design firm, Jim says “It was not what I really wanted to do… It wasn’t a miserable place to be, it was a good place, good people. But it wasn’t the work I wanted.”
Jim then started looking for other opportunities and came across the Collaborative.
“I needed something to be fun and interesting, so I’m almost positive that what made me check out the Collaborative was to see what projects I could get involved in.” He started by attending a design review meeting, and then signed up for a project. What stood out about the Collaborative for him were different professionals coming together, and how he could use his professional skills. “I don’t know of any other organizations that have opportunities for interior designers on a volunteer basis.”
Jim ultimately led a Collaborative project, the redesign of the Camp William Penn Museum in La Mott, PA. The museum commemorates the Union Army training camp, notable for being the first training ground dedicated to African American troops.
It was an eye-opening experience for him—from leading a volunteer team to learning about nonprofits to running his first community meeting. Once the project was finished, Jim looked for other project management and nonprofit opportunities and came across Rebuilding Together’s job posting. His time at the Collaborative helped him tremendously with the job application, since he was able to write about the Camp William Penn project and use graphics from it.
“I really do attribute the Collaborative to piquing Rebuilding Together’s interest, and quite possibly on having this experience [working at Rebuilding Together]. Otherwise I probably would’ve looked like every other candidate,” says Jim, “But something stood out about this, since I worked with and managed volunteers, renovated an older building and since it was a community based project.”
Seeing an Impact
He finds his current job at Rebuilding Together very rewarding. “I had a twelve-year-old kid give me the biggest hug because we’d put a door on his room and now he could do homework there without his family bothering him. We’ve also had families tell us, ‘We have our dining room back. The bathroom is no longer leaking down onto the dining room, so we can finally have family meals again.’ So it’s stuff like that that’s huge.”
Jim is hopeful about the future of the city and thinks that it’s important to lend a hand to communities in need. “I’ve always been blessed and lucky to make the time to give back. Some of our homeowners have to work 60 hours a week just to feed themselves and their kids. So I think that it’s a responsibility for people who are able to give back to their communities.”
“And if you’re somebody like a designer or an architect, you have skills that are really needed, and it is very easy to volunteer for something like the Community Design Collaborative with those skills. It’s like a no-brainer actually to me (laughs).”