They came with paint brushes, steel wool, and brawn. But what really got to Robert Sheppard - what made him cry in front of his wife for the first time in almost never - had to be the love.

A dozen Samaritans soldiered into Sheppard's Oxford Circle rowhouse Sunday and attacked the shabby abode with fixer-upper resolve. Sheppard and his wife were barely making it in blue-collar retirement; the workers hoped this kindness would help.

The 82-year-old Korean War veteran watched the workers and smiled, even while drawing breath from the oxygen tank that has made him feel less and less like the man he once was.

He cracked jokes about the Eagles, about the time he ruined his knees by falling two decks on a Navy ship, and how the family never really took vacations and that was all right.

But the Renaissance Rebuild SWAT team that had invaded his house on Loretto Street was too much. Even for a big guy who used to cut sheet metal for a living. And for Pearl, too, who felt the earth shake if her husband ever cried.

"It made my spirits come up," Sheppard said, blue eyes turning glassy as his voice trailed off. "There's just no words I can say."

Pearl Sheppard watched in stunned silence, nearly leaving the room as she had earlier, when her man broke down crying.

"I don't know," Pearl Sheppard said. "I'm just dumbfounded myself."

The scene at the Sheppard home repeated itself at 12 other Northeast Philadelphia houses as more than 100 volunteers and staffers with Habitat for Humanity and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia worked their magic on what's called Renaissance Rebuild.

In this, its second year, the initiative led by the federation targets seniors of all faiths who have one thing in common: They are having trouble making ends meet.

"We are here to make sure that every community member doesn't feel isolated and can move closely inside their own home," said Melanie Krutzel, a federation development officer.

"The need in Philadelphia for homeowner repairs is overwhelming," said Habitat development director Carolyn McLaughlin. "In 13 homes today, we were able to make a difference."

Extreme makeovers were not on the menu of this effort, financed with $60,000 in cash, donated time, and donated supplies. Paint jobs, handyman fixes, and rubbish removal were the order of the day at most homes.

And yet, at one house, Krutzel was bowled over by a Holocaust survivor.

"She kissed me repeatedly," Krutzel said. "She was just so grateful."

For every household selected, the federation and Habitat are also identifying grants that many may not know about.

With help from Habitat, the Sheppards have applied to the Veterans Administration for $15,000 to rebuild their crumbling front porch. They also applied to Peco for an energy-efficient replacement refrigerator (their request was denied because the couple, living mostly on Social Security, were deemed not needy enough, they said.)

There was nothing before a flier was stuffed into the Sheppards' door three months ago.

Pearl Sheppard didn't think she stood a chance but called about the advertised home-repair help.

"They came out a couple days later, and here we are," Pearl Sheppard said. "I'm just so excited, it's unbelievable."

Crews lugged old appliances out of the cluttered basement and put up shelves. Pearl was elated.

"Pearl hugged me," said volunteer Emily Bernstein, 26, who lives in Center City and works as a recruiter.

Steven Sheppard, 43, moved in with his parents over the last year to help. They've been depressed. His dad was hospitalized a good five times with pneumonia for no apparent reason.

Renaissance, he said, had been transformative.

"It's such a mental boost," Steven Sheppard said.

As Krutzel walked out the door Sunday, she was struck by how Steven Sheppard pulled her aside to say thanks, and this, too:

"They'd never seen their mom smile so much."

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@Panaritism