By Dana Cadey

It might have been 8 o’clock on a Saturday morning, but 10 Principia students were already packed into a van driving down River Road. Their destination: Wood River, Illinois, a town on the outskirts of East Alton. They weren’t part of a sports team, and they weren’t on a field trip. 

They were answering the call of the Bucket Brigade. 

Along with community service Coordinator Robert Pennamon and a few RCEs, these students agreed to dedicate their time to a small act of community service that has a big impact on the person receiving it: painting a house that could use some tender, loving care.  

Thirty-three years ago, Godfrey resident Dale Neudecker wanted to create a program that would bring together people in the greater Alton community who were passionate about enacting change. “What could most people do that could make a difference?” Neudecker recalled asking himself. The answer was clear immediately: “paint.” The Bucket Brigade does just that; it serves as a coalition of volunteers that repaints people’s homes in the greater Alton area, from Jerseyville to Roxana. The paint is provided by Sherwin-Williams, and the volunteers represent a variety of local organizations.

Dale Neudecker in front of the house being painted by the Bucket Brigade.

“We’ve had groups from junior high schools…to a lot of senior citizens, and every group in between,” said Neudecker. “Practically every denomination paints…off and on. We also have civic groups like Rotary Club and the 100 Black Men of Alton…and just families. They’ll all get together to help.”

Born and raised in Alton, Neudecker is 85 years old. At the time of the Bucket Brigade’s conception, Neudecker was the incoming president of Pride Inc., a local beautification organization. As president, he valued visiting neighborhoods and taking tangible steps to make them look better, and this passion would eventually blossom into the Bucket Brigade. Neudecker’s children recently took over the chairmanship of the organization, but Neudecker stays involved with its activities.

“People feel good about going out and helping someone else,” Neudecker said. “I think that’s the reason why [the Bucket Brigade] has lasted for 33 years. You can perform a miracle in one day.”

The Bucket Brigade paints an impressive average of 50 houses a year. Most of this is actually accomplished in one day, on which Neudecker sends volunteers all over the area to paint. This typically takes place in May, but since Principians are busy then with finals and graduation, Neudecker invites the college to participate in the fall.

The inspiration behind the “bucket brigade” name comes from groups of volunteers who assisted their local fire departments by standing in assembly lines and passing buckets of water from person to person. The bucket brigade of Neudecker’s vision involves more paint than water, but Neudecker thinks that the connection to this old-fashioned practice is accurate.

“It was neighbor helping neighbor,” he said, referring to those volunteers from decades ago. 

“We’re coming with a bucket of paint…it’s still neighbor helping neighbor. You have young college students who come out here with all of this energy, and that probably means more to [the owners of the houses] than the paint itself.”

Neudecker arrived shortly after the Principia volunteers, educating them on the history of the Bucket Brigade before posing with them for a group picture. He also shared a few stories about Principia’s involvement with the organization, reflecting fondly on the college’s continued commitment to service.

“There’s a part of Principia that will remain in these houses,” he beamed.

After meeting Neudecker, the volunteers spread out around the exterior of the house, equipped with gloves, ladders, paint buckets, and paint brushes. Some students started painting right away, while others paint-proofed the ground by laying down tarps. 

The owner of the house, a woman named Patricia Jacoby, came out to greet the volunteers and personally thank each of them for their work. Later, to everyone’s delight, she even brought out a plate of homemade chocolate chip cookies. Jacoby’s cat, meanwhile, idly watched the volunteers from the front window.

The Bucket Brigade involves the owner of the house in the process, letting them select their house’s new paint color. Jacoby wanted her house reinforced white, with her shutters repainted a vibrant navy blue. The Principia volunteers alternated between these two tasks and frequently moved around the house to cover as much territory as quickly as possible. They might have been working expeditiously, but each brush stroke was deliberate and careful. After four hours of hard work, the house had transformed from a dusty tan into a brilliant white.  

Patricia Jacoby’s home before the Bucket Brigade began painting.

While house-painting is not back-breaking labor, it is a far cry from how most people would want to spend a weekend morning. However, genuine enjoyment radiated from each Principia volunteer, and this atmosphere contributed to a strong sense of community and purpose. Senior MaryGrace Kinuthia even called the work “relaxing.”

Sophomore Joey Onyechi appeared to especially enjoy the work, cracking jokes with his friends as he used an extension pole to reach his paint roller to the top of the house. “I’ve actually never painted before this,” Onyechi admitted. After a moment of contemplation, he added: “I think I’ll paint more later.”

Most of the Principians present were members of Howard House, which has a culture of community service among its residents. Howard specifically volunteered for this task, coordinated by House President Mesa Gobel. The senior emphasized her appreciation for the volunteers who are willing to step outside of the Principia “bubble” and engage with the greater community. 

“I think at Principia it’s easy to forget that there’s a lot of inequality that exists in this area, specifically income inequality in Alton and St. Louis,” Gobel said. “I think these type of projects foster caring about our communities, and that’s so important, especially with that background.”

The volunteers ended up staying longer than they expected in order to satisfactorily finish painting the house. As the Principia van pulled away from the front yard, everyone sat in comfortable silence, content with their accomplishment. Driving back through Wood River and into Alton, it was clear that Mrs. Jacoby’s house is just one of many that could use a new coat of paint and a tiny bit more love. 

Still, despite the large number of people in need, Neudecker’s life philosophy is one of optimistic charity. “We’re put on this earth to help each other,” he said with a smile. After listening to his legacy of kind-hearted service, it was easy to believe him.

Image courtesy of Nathan Brantingham