Making the world a better place

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Robert Friedman

Over decades, Dave Dittman has devoted his spare time to helping war refugees resettle, as well as build and repair housing for the needy, in Howard County and around the country. His tireless work on behalf of others has earned him the 2016 Howard County Lifetime Achievement Award, which honors exemplary volunteers.
Photo by Christopher Myers

In the 1970s and ‘80s, Dave Dittman helped settle refugees from the Vietnam War and the Cambodia genocide into new lives in Howard County and around the U.S.

In the 1990s, he started repairing houses in Baltimore’s inner city. And since 2005, he has made numerous trips to Mississippi to help rebuild Hurricane Katrina-ravaged homes. 

That volunteer work — and more — over the years has earned the Ellicott City resident the 2016 Howard County Lifetime Achievement Award.

Dittman said that his volunteer work was spurred by his childhood empathy for the underdog.

“When I was growing up, I had histoplasmosis, a debilitating lung disease. I was the low man on the totem pole in high school. I got knocked around pretty good.

“I developed an affinity for the other low guys on the totem pole,” recalled Dittman, now 78. “And I developed an affinity for minorities.

“When I was growing up in Seymour, Indiana, Tuskegee Airmen were training at the air base there. They weren’t treated too well.”

Several were arrested and court-martialed for trying to integrate the officer’s club at the Freeman Air Base. “That stayed with me all my life,” Dittman said.

High praise

Many community leaders can attest to how those early experiences translated into decades of Dittman’s efforts helping others.

”Dave builds rapport with those he works with. His thousands of hours of work have changed lives, improved the housing quality, and impacted the community in countless ways,” said Millicent Nwolisa, executive director of Bridges for Housing Stability, the nonprofit group where Dittman is doing his volunteer work these days.

Bridges works to prevent homelessness in Howard County by providing services and advocacy for housing stability. “As his wife Jane states, when anyone says, ‘Dave, I need…’, he has jumped in and pulled together the people to get the job done,” said Nwolisa.

Connie Fischel did volunteer work with Dittman for the Columbia Cooperative Ministries resettlement program decades ago, and the two have remained friends.

“Dave helped settle over 200 people in new homes from Ellicott City to California, helping them find jobs and housing,” said  Fischel. “They came from refugee camps, and we met them at BWI on flights from Vietnam. Dave was such a hard-working fellow. I think he is a born volunteer.”

Phil English, who lives in Columbia, has worked with Dittman on projects from Baltimore to Mississippi.

“We helped put together houses that were falling apart after Katrina. We also worked together in Baltimore,” English said. “Dave is the leader of the crews” nicknamed the Hammers. “He puts everything together and figures out what has to be done.”

English, 80, traveled with Dittman to Mississippi, and worked alongside him for the Christmas in April organization in Baltimore and Howard County to make free repairs and perform upkeep to homes of low-income residents.

And there’s more. Helen Skipper is an 80-year-old Baltimorean whose home near Ravens Stadium Dittman helped recondition several times.

“He’s done so much for me. He’s a blessing in my life,” Skipper said. “He’s my friend, my brother, my baby. If there were more people like him, this world would be a better place to live in.”

Still using a jackhammer

Dittman continues to volunteer in his low-key way, as those who have worked with him attest. While he’s happy to get the recognition for his work, he’s a bit put out that “I can’t do much heavy lifting anymore.” For example, he can’t move all that heavy furniture like he used to.

But he can, and does, still lead crews and work with hammer and nails and other tools to rip up floors and walls, shore them up, and varnish, plaster and paint. Dittman has also been known to area residents as the “go-to handyman.”

“I can still use a jackhammer if I have to,” he added.

When he wasn’t volunteering his “free time” over the decades, Dittman was managing disability programs for the Social Security Administration for 30 years.

So why doesn’t he sit back, put his feet up, watch TV and read or snack as he muses over his nearly four-score life?

“Because, if I sit back, relax, and so on, I feel useless,” he said. “I enjoy working with my hands and with people. I’m pretty good at organizing, which is making sure that you have the proper materials and people, and that you’ve prepared everything. That’s the key to keeping you motivated.”

Among the stories of Dittman’s work is one about the West African immigrant who would not report the myriad problems in his housing unit to the property management or owners because he was afraid of losing the housing. 

Dittman, representing Bridges for Housing Stability, went to the apartment, saw what repairs were needed, and made them. He built trust with the tenant and convinced him he did not need fear getting into trouble for reporting needed repairs.

Dittman recalled other out-of-the-ordinary happenings in his volunteer work. He and his crew were doing repairs in what is known as an “alley house” in Baltimore, when suddenly officers invaded the house across the narrow street and carried out a drug bust. “That shook up some of our younger church volunteers,” he said.

He remembered tearing down walls of the old post office building in Elkridge that had been converted into a house where two women in their 80s lived. What he and the Hammers found during their work were “termites working their way halfway across the house. It took us six months, but we put that house together again.” 

Dittman noted that home construction “runs in the family. My grandfather and my dad built houses. I’ve always done the repairs and rebuilt the kitchen and bathroom in my own home.”

Resettling refugees

Dittman’s work some 40 years ago to settle Vietnamese, Cambodian and Ethiopian refugees was brought about by his membership in the First Presbyterian Church of Howard County, where he is a longtime member, and with other religious groups to help the refugees. Several church groups were instrumental at the time in bringing the refugees to the U.S.

Dittman seems saddened by the reception being accorded to today’s refugees from the disasters of war and terrorism. “We were much more open then, when I was working with refugees, than we are now for the poor folks of Syria,” he said.

Dittman, along with other Howard County volunteers recently honored by the county for their work, will have a brick engraved with his name and award in the “Pathway to Excellence” at Troy Park in Elkridge.  

Among the other awardees this year is Richard Ellestad, honored as Volunteer of the Year for his work with county seniors, helping them effectively use computers and assisting them and low-income residents of the county in preparing their tax forms.

Martin Wang, a junior at Glenelg High School, was honored as Youth Volunteer of the Year. He also helps low-income families prepare tax returns as a volunteer.

Ellicott City’s Sunrise Rotary Club was honored for its work with businesses, social services organizations and government entities that provide programs for children in Howard County.