Leroy Rucker was a "wild child," until his first-born son overdosed and died at a methadone clinic a year ago.
His son's death sent him in a new direction, like the Israelites after God struck down their enemies' first-born in Exodus.
On Monday, Rucker was immersed in his new direction, helping members of the Second Avenue United Methodist Church paint the house of a neighbor on Third Avenue, doing work his late son - whom he idolized - would have been proud of.
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
Three members of the Second Avenue United Methodist Church (from left to right), Matt Young of Hollidaysburg, Jenifer DeBlois and Julie DeGennaro, both of Altoona, complete mission work by painting the second story of a home at 103 Third Ave. on Monday afternoon. About 50 volunteers will work during the church’s community restoration project this week.
It's the annual Community Restoration Project week for the Second Avenue church, and this year, members of the congregation are working with those of three other United Methodist churches - Hicks in Duncansville, First in Hollidaysburg and Canoe Creek near Williamsburg - to paint two houses and do miscellaneous tasks at other properties.
"It's a Godsend," said Bev Andrews, Rucker's neighbor - and a single mother of three sons.
Andrews had started to paint the house herself but backed off in fright when she came to the high parts.
Rucker - "a big, loveable bear" - gave her an application for the church project.
His remaining kids are in two youth programs at Second Avenue, and he saw the church members "were all right," said Danny Billetter, who's supervising the restoration project.
Rucker's intervention is helping Second Avenue expand its reach "deeper" into the lives of nearby residents, Billetter said.
Rucker has been trying to make amends for his past with a neighborhood approach - being friendly and helping out the people who live near him.
The neighborhood used to have a reputation as one of the worst in the city, Rucker said.
Now, Rucker watches over it, Billetter said.
When police busted a drug house where kids hung out - not selling drugs themselves but passing the time - Rucker pointed them to the church, and they came in, Billetter said.
Rucker tries to be calm. "No yelling and screaming," he said.
He tries to control his anger, figuring that when things happen - like his truck breaking down - they happen for a reason only God may know.
"I accept things," he said.
Julie DeGennaro, a Second Avenue member and one of about a dozen volunteers at Andrews' house Monday, likes working for free.
A single mother, she recalled a colleague who once came to her house to fix a water heater, after she mentioned it had broken, even paying for a part.
"I was overwhelmed," she said.
All he told her was to "pay it forward someday," she said.
"That's what this feels like," she said.
Andrews might feel she herself can't pay back for the work the congregation is doing, Billetter said.
"[But] you pay us back by how you live," he told her.
Rucker and Andrews and other neighbors who have been helping one another are better examples of Christian living than many who attend church services religiously, Billetter said.
Second Avenue's way is "all about going outside of the church and helping others," DeGennaro said.
"We don't just tell people" about Christianity, she said. "We show it."
She was grateful for the opportunity to do so.
"Here with a bunch of people I barely know," she said. "Building relationships."
The work of transforming the neighborhood is "finally, actually happening - through the least people you would expect," Billetter said.
"This work to us is a blessing," Billetter said. "It's like - perfect."
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7083.