Program helps Hillsborough families reduce the risk of household respiratory issues

Healthier Homes for Children will help up to 65 families repair their homes to lessen household asthma triggers.
Anastasia Saunders is pictured in front of her home that is currently under renovation thanks to Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay and the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County. [Special to the Times | Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay]
Anastasia Saunders is pictured in front of her home that is currently under renovation thanks to Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay and the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County. [Special to the Times | Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay]
Published March 28

Anastasia Saunders' life as a single mother involves holding down two jobs, caring for her two sons and enduring many sleepless nights.

The 34-year old licensed practical nurse constantly worries about finances and her sons' health.

Both sons, Trevon Freeman, who’s 8, and 11-year-old Bryant Freeman, suffer from severe allergies. But Bryant developed asthma 4 years ago, and now Saunders fears Trevon may do the same.

Bryant’s asthma attacks occur a couple of times a month, sometimes requiring visits to the emergency room or an urgent care center. His condition can require Saunders to miss work, and she rarely sleeps well at night, fearful that an asthma attack as her son sleeps might prove fatal.

"It's late, like 11:00, he's sleeping and I'm watching him sleep," Saunders said, "holding his chest and making sure he's breathing."

Saunders has tried to prevent asthma attacks by maintaining a house that is free of allergens. But she realized that some household maintenance projects that could reduce the risk of respiratory issues — like replacing a leaky roof, repairing an air conditioning unit or duct work, and replacing carpeting with hard-surface flooring — were beyond her means.

To assist homeowners like Saunders, Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay has partnered with the Children's Board of Hillsborough County and the Tampa Bay Asthma Coalition to help up to 65 other families repair their homes under a new program called Healthier Homes for Children.

The Children's Board awarded RTTB a $297,000 grant to assist qualified, income-eligible homeowners in Hillsborough whose children suffer from asthma or other respiratory conditions.

Ultimately, the program aims to lessen household asthma triggers, reduce asthma-related doctor or ER visits and missed school and work days, and decrease overall stress for the family.

Jose Garcia, RTTB's executive director, said there are a number of requirements that applicants must meet to receive assistance with repairs. But he said Saunders' promptness and responsibility set her apart.

"She was the first one to submit her application and she made a great effort to modify the house as much as possible as a safe space for her children,” Garcia said. “It just came down to the finances."

Asthma is a chronic lung disease caused by an inflammation of the airways. It can cause coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. About 25 million Americans have asthma, and the rate of asthmatics has steadily increased in the U.S. since the early 1980s.

The Partners Asthma Center reports that in the United States, the risk of death from asthma is three times greater among African Americans than among whites. They note that research points to poverty as an important factor in worsening asthma’s severity.

According to a 2018 report by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, Tampa ranks as the third most challenging city in Florida to live with asthma.

Cynthia O. Keeton, a program coordinator at the Florida Department of Health Hillsborough County, said she was not surprised by these statistics.

"We're in Hillsborough County, where everywhere you go, you're going to see an oak tree," Keeton said. "But it's also because of the poor housing quality.

"Every homeowner should do something to improve their homes every year. But we're finding that a lot of homes, especially in the inner-city, are not well-maintained."

Keeton said they are targeting specific zip codes like 33605, which includes Ybor City and East Tampa, where issues with mold, dust mites, and pest and rodent infestation are common. Other factors, like household chemical use and the area's proximity to constant car exhaust fumes from the interstate, can cause respiratory issues.

RTTB began repairing Saunder's home on March 11 and anticipates completion by the end of the month.

Saunders said it's still hard to fully describe how grateful she is. At first, she couldn't believe it until she actually saw someone working on her roof.

"I thought something's going to come up and they're going to say 'oh you don't qualify'," she said, fighting back tears.

"Sometimes I just want to give up, but I can't because I have kids. You just feel like you're drowning and then all of a sudden all this stuff starts showing up and I feel like I can breathe again."

Contact Monique Welch at mwelch@tampabay.com or Follow Mo_UNIQUE_.

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