Ethel Parker had never had a bathroom in her home.

She’d walk to the nearest convenience store when she needed to use the restroom, until Hearts for Homes—a locally supported nonprofit based in Denton, Texas—discovered her situation. “To go into a house that has never had a bathroom and put one in and see the joy in people’s eyes—my problems are kinda small,” said volunteer Harley Downey.

Hearts for Homes specifically reaches the frail elderly who have difficulty living in their homes and performing daily tasks because of housing dysfunctions. “The Scriptures tell us to take care of the orphans and the widows,” said Susan Frank, who started the 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2006.

Their work is entirely volunteer and remarkably individualized, often marshalling other local groups depending on the project. With no salaried staff, Hearts for Homes carefully monitors donations and how resources are allocated.

Historically, local groups such as Hearts for Homes were looked to for community assistance, notes Heritage’s 2013 Index of Dependence on Government, which was released last week:

Despite the prevailing view that people were left on their own to solve their problems before the creation of the welfare state, there is a rich history of Americans providing voluntary mutual aid before and during the Progressive Era. Assistance was often provided by private charity and mutual aid societies.

The new report tracks the growth in dependency on federal programs, including those providing welfare that can trap multiple generations in a system robbing their dignity and initiative.

Unlike volunteers who arrive with hammer and nails to help, government often does the opposite—as the documentary Graciously We Receive reveals.

City employees warned 80-year-old Carol Vincent that she had 60 days to correct her “dangerous” garage before being cited and subsequently fined. Vincent lived alone at the time, with no resources to fix her garage, yet the city policy was unyielding.

Rather than one-size-fits-all government policies, Hearts for Homes offers help that is tailored to the individual needs they encounter, in large part because local volunteers can best determine local needs and issues. They also have a sense of mutual responsibility to care for other citizens in need.

Hearts for Homes received Vincent’s application and took on the project. The smiles and efforts of volunteers made her happy, as they demolished her garage and renovated her house. “In this moment, I start to enjoy my home,” Vincent said.

These volunteers hardly see their work as a burden. They are seeking community service, creating satisfaction for the elderly they serve and for themselves. A team of retired architects and contractors evaluates incoming project requests, while local church groups and university students provide the manpower. Older volunteers guide work projects, teaching their younger counterparts basic house repairs.

“I do feel like I volunteer with gratitude,” Sophia Bang said. “When you do it without seeking reward, it’s just simple.” Lindsey Angell, another student volunteer, appreciated the give-and-receive. “In the Hearts for Homes project, we learned how to caulk, how to paint, how to sand—so many things you don’t learn in school,” she said. “You can always see the transformation that’s going on.”

Bang agreed: “The harder the project, the more satisfied I feel.”

Explore Heritage research on civil society and read the full 2013 Index of Dependence on Government. Katy Doran is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation.