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The Extreme message of the season 

It's easy to be cynical about Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. It's harder to turn into a model for volunteerism. But we should.

click to enlarge Workers and volunteers listen to Extreme Makeover: Home Edition host Ty Pennington. His hunk value is considered one of the show's attractions. - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON
  • Photo by Derek Anderson
  • Workers and volunteers listen to Extreme Makeover: Home Edition host Ty Pennington. His hunk value is considered one of the show's attractions.

The recently completed Extreme Makeover: Home Edition project in Raleigh was a scripted Christmas miracle. Hollywood celebrities came through on a shiny white horse—er, bus—and, aided by a local builder with a heart of gold, saved the day for a struggling-yet-deserving family. The community came out in droves, demonstrating generosity and love, confirming the best of what we believe about ourselves. Let the studio audience say awwwwww.

As with any Christmas miracle, the setting wouldn't be complete without a chorus of bah humbugging. An alternate take on the above would be: Media conglomerate comes to town and bombards us all with the message that corporations are our salvation and that happiness and success are attainable through over-consumption and the redemptive power of things.

From an abstract, political standpoint, of course I recognize the program is "entertainment"—a show to ABC/Disney—and a highly rated, Emmy Award-winning one, at that. It is most certainly an advertising opportunity for Sears, the show's main sponsor, which stocks each house on every episode chock full of appliances and plasma TVs from their stores. And, sure, the way in which the producers tell the families' stories are carefully calibrated for maximum tear-duct drainage. But so what?

I'm a fairly regular viewer of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, which airs on Sunday evenings after football and America's Funniest Groin Injuries, because it's one of the few shows on TV that I can watch with my entire family. And in the interest of full disclosure, I'll even admit that, despite knowing the formula by heart, I usually end up a tad misty-eyed by the end of an episode when they show the family's reaction to their new home.

I give the show high marks for social responsibility in comparison to other network fare (Desperate Housewives, anyone?). I'm clearly grading on a curve, here. Still, what intrigues me most about this television show, and the thing that made me want a closer look, is their community engagement model.

If you're not familiar with the show, it follows a fairly simple format. Producers select a family with a hard-luck story, assess their living conditions, personalities, preferences and special needs, and then whisk them off on a one-week vacation (usually to one of Disney's theme parks, since the show airs on Disney-owned ABC). While they are out, an all-star assortment of interior designers works with a local builder and community volunteers to completely demolish the existing home and rebuild a new, lavish residence in a matter of mere days.

Each episode details the family's plight, the construction process, the furnishing and decorating of the home. Finally, the show is capped with a "reveal" of the new home, when the family returns to their neighborhood in a darkened limo and is let out across the street from their house, obscured by the design team's custom tour bus. Throngs of extended family, friends, well-wishers and volunteers, and other folks who just want to be on television, then chant "Move that bus!" until the bus driver obliges and the family is overcome with emotion at the sight of their not-so-humble abode.

The camera crews then follow the family inside as they are taken on a tour of the house, which frequently includes over-the-top choices in décor and themes in the rooms, being sure to highlight the especially nice, Sears-furnished appliances and gadgets. Whether you find the formula hokey and cloying, or sincere and poignant, it's undeniable that the show's combination of sympathetic subjects and barn-raising spirit promote a powerful brand-identity for the network and its sponsors while unleashing an almost-populist energy, at least temporarily, upon local communities.

click to enlarge Volunteers and onlookers at the Raleigh edition of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition take a break to hear from show host Ty Pennington. - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON
  • Photo by Derek Anderson
  • Volunteers and onlookers at the Raleigh edition of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition take a break to hear from show host Ty Pennington.

In Raleigh, the program chose a family in the Mordecai-Halifax Court neighborhood just north of downtown. In recent years the area has undergone a Hope VI HUD grant-funded transition from the Halifax Court public housing project to a gentrifying, mixed-income neighborhood. New, detached $400,000 homes share space (for now) with older, modest and often deteriorating dwellings dating back to the earlier part of the last century.

I'd actually found out early about the Extreme Makeover: Home Edition project coming to Raleigh. I'm on the board of directors for a local charity that provides services and transitional housing for the homeless, and an e-mail forwarded to our distribution list from one of the show's producers piqued my interest. The e-mail asked people in local government and community organizations to nominate families we felt were deserving of a new house and being featured on TV. The Rigginses received several nominations and overwhelming support, certainly fitting the Extreme Makeover prototype in that they're highly regarded and display selflessness despite adversity.

The husband, William, has been blind since 1985 and works as an assembler for Lions Industries, which provides jobs and services for the visually impaired. His wife, Linda, a social worker, has suffered a number of health issues over the past year resulting in large medical bills which, piled on top of day-to-day expenses, threatened to overrun their modest resources. Through it all, the couple remain tireless workers at Building Together Ministries, a nonprofit, Christian community organization that provides tutoring, after-school services, summer camps, a thrift store and life-skills classes for disadvantaged youth and parents. Building Together shares its facility with Hope Elementary Charter School, right across the street from the Rigginses' residence.

Their home (like, sadly, far too many downtown) was in extreme disrepair and easily could have been condemned by the city, leaving this couple and their three young children, ages 3 to 6, with no affordable place to go. Even in the midst of that, and living in a house so small they had to keep their refrigerator in the dining room, they took in another family for a while last year, letting them stay in their converted attic. Friends, coworkers and neighbors say that type of concern and willingness to push their needs aside to help others typifies the Rigginses. Their strong faith ascribes this timely intervention to divine providence.

The Rigginses were nominated by Triangle Homeworks, a local nonprofit that actually got its start when some friends and fans of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition got to wondering how they could replicate the good works they saw on TV. Triangle Homeworks, in operation for more than a year, has now done a few, albeit considerably more low-key, charitable construction projects in the area and plans to continue. The show's producers used them for the recruitment of volunteers.

A block away from the construction site, management of volunteers ( which included me for a day) was handled by red-jacketed employees of HomeLife Communities, the construction company chosen to build the house. Inside a huge tent that sprang from the side of the N.C. Baptist Men's Disaster Relief Bus, prospective volunteers signed disclaimers. One form gave ABC/Disney the rights to use our images, and the other said they would pretend not to know us should we happen to amputate an arm using a masonry saw or get crushed by one of the ubiquitous dump trucks. Sounded fair to me.

Each Extreme home can only be built through massive amounts of volunteerism. There's an axiom in project management about resources: having nine women pregnant for one month each will not produce a baby in 30 days. But in home construction, which typically, with no delays or setbacks, takes at least four months, attempting to build a quality house in less than seven days is nothing short of insane. According to a spokesman for HomeLife Communities, the construction plan was so compressed that tasks ordinarily allotted one day on a build had to be completed in just one hour. The sheer overkill in workers and overtime it takes to pull off the house-in-a-week thing ordinarily would mean that even a modest-sized house would have a price tag in the millions (or, roughly the cost of homes on the normal market in California).

What snarky blog posts and pissed purists miss while decrying all of the resources being concentrated to aid one family (and often one whose needs may not differ much if at all from many other members of their community) is that when Extreme Makeover: Home Edition comes into a city, they help to create a volunteerism infrastructure. There are folks who are lifelong activists, volunteers and community servants who daily go about their business of quietly making miracles in the lives of their fellow citizens. Our society would fall apart (or at least do so more quickly) without them. Yet on the set of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition in Raleigh, I met not only those diehard stalwarts, but also a large number of folks who told me that this was their first volunteer or community service project.

click to enlarge Andrea Pinel, who helped organize volunteers through Triangle Homeworks, works as a remodeling consultant in Cary. Here, she helps Donna Stickly stuff a signed photo of Ty Pennington into her construction pack before entering the job site. - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON
  • Photo by Derek Anderson
  • Andrea Pinel, who helped organize volunteers through Triangle Homeworks, works as a remodeling consultant in Cary. Here, she helps Donna Stickly stuff a signed photo of Ty Pennington into her construction pack before entering the job site.

Triangle Homeworks saw its roll of registered volunteers double due to its involvement in the project. And were it not for the opportunity to participate in a TV production, receive a blue T-shirt, and the slim chance of an autograph or getting on television, I'm sure the number of folks showing up to work on the Rigginses' house would have been a lot less.

But here's the thing: Doing good for others and playing a part in doing something on a scale much more grand than you could accomplish on your own changes a person.

Thousands of volunteers worked on the house, with several hundred working at any given time. I spoke with as many people as possible among the diverse throng to gauge their motivations.

"I didn't have any money to give, but I had some free time, so I just came down," said a man who looked to be in his 40s. He'd heard about the event on the news. He explained that while he was an experienced painter, the builder was coordinating all the skilled trades, and those who just volunteered off the streets were given any of a number of miscellaneous tasks. He was eager to fit in anywhere. While several newly arrived volunteers waited in the staging tent, he left to deliver some freshly recharged batteries for the walkie-talkies the construction crews used. I wouldn't see him again for a couple of hours, when we both were cleaning up construction trash from the back yard, placing scrap wood into huge dumpsters and scaffolding parts on pallets to be removed by the forklifts.

Another man ended up on the set by happenstance. "I was downtown to pay my rent and just kind of saw things all blocked off. I asked what was going on and when I found out it was Extreme Makeover, I just had to come down here. I remembered how this area used to be, with Halifax [Court].... And now ...," he paused and pointed to a neat row of colorful, two-story houses along North Blount Street. One of them had a "For Sale—from the mid-$400,000s" sign out front. "Some of those houses over there are Section 8. It's really nice. I get subsidized rent now, and live over near New Bern Avenue. Man, I'd love it if they came to my house to build me a new one, but I figure this is the next best thing, to be able to help them do this for someone else," he said.

A retiree with a cheery smile, who recently moved with her husband to Fuquay-Varina from California, came to volunteer with her sister, who also lives in the area. Together, they swept streets, picked up trash, and angled for a slot on the cleaning crew that got to actually go inside the house—a plum assignment for those who weren't carpenters, plumbers, electricians and such. I asked the two if they normally volunteered on community projects and they responded that they hadn't, but were enjoying the feeling of making a difference so much that they would do so in the future.

As a viewer of the show, I admit I've always been a tad dubious about all of the building company representatives who invariably choke up when handing over the house keys to the family. But after spending time with some of these people off-camera and even off-the-record, I found that their voices still cracked with emotion and earnestness when talking about the conditions the Rigginses were living in and the difference they could make in their lives.

When this episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition airs Jan. 21, it will no doubt be the biggest commercial in the history of HomeLife Communities. Yet, as skeptical and cynical as I can be, I saw in HomeLife no concern about the costs—financial or human—in pulling off this project. Instead, I witnessed folks working on two or less hours of sleep. I saw people who put in a full day's work at their office and then drive over to the site to work all through the night. There were a few subcontractors who paid their crews to be there and billed nothing. And there were numerous laborers and skilled contractors who plied their trades for no money. All the labor, all the supplies: all donated.

click to enlarge Don Mead of HomeLife Builders, the company constructing the Extreme Makeover home in Raleigh, takes a beverage break. - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON
  • Photo by Derek Anderson
  • Don Mead of HomeLife Builders, the company constructing the Extreme Makeover home in Raleigh, takes a beverage break.

I spoke to Don Mead, HomeLife's Raleigh division president, and was moved by the candor and sincerity he exuded.

"We had about four-and-a-half weeks' notice prior to the start of building in order to get prepared," he said. "We just heard that we would be helping a family in Raleigh. We'd offered our services to the Extreme Makeover show last year and weren't selected, but when we heard that they were planning a project in this area, we asked again. We just wanted to give something back to this neighborhood and the community, and feel very fortunate to have been chosen out of all the great builders in the area."

HomeLife Communities, headquartered in Atlanta but also doing business in Raleigh, Charlotte and Phoenix, prides itself on its community involvement and charitable endeavors, taking on the personality of its founder and CEO, Jon Been, who is a particularly staunch supporter of children's charities. They're no strangers to giving away houses, either, having made an annual tradition of the Duke Children's Miracle House, in which they and all of their subcontractors build a home at cost, forsaking all profits. They then sell the home and give all of the proceeds to Duke Children's Hospital. Last year, that project produced over $90,000 for the cause, and next year, they hope to top $100,000.

Still, foregoing profits on one job is one thing. On this project, according to Mead, "Everything is 100 percent donated. All the labor, all the materials ... the mortar, stone, every bit of everything going into this house has been donated." As if to underscore the point, while we spoke he paused briefly to talk to another gentleman about a delivery schedule. He then introduced the man to me as the manager of a local furniture store whose company had donated "every stick of furniture" going into the house.

When asked whether they'd counted up the costs of the endeavor, Mead replied, "Honestly, no. We haven't looked at it or totaled up the expense involved. And I couldn't put a number on what this project is worth if I had to take into account the love and care and concern of all of these people," waving his arms toward a sea of blue-shirted volunteers in multicolored hardhats scurrying about.

More telling is an anecdote that Darren Drevik, marketing director for HomeLife, shared with me. "Someone managed to get the whole family, who didn't yet know about the surprise, out of the home on a pretext, and several of us from the construction team toured their home for the first time," he said. "The family's 6-year-old son was living in what was about a 10-by-10 foot plywood addition tacked onto the back of the house. There was no heating there, except for a space heater," he said, his eyes watering.

"Don [Mead] said, 'I don't care about a TV show. Whether that happens or not, we're gonna do something for this family regardless. And when it was announced and finalized, and we got to actually meet the family, the first thing that Don did was go seek out that little boy and tell him, 'I promise you, you won't have to sleep in the cold ever again.'"

Darren's voice broke at the recollection, and as my eyes began to water, too, I looked away, feeling the need to go lift something heavy. I found, through the course of my volunteer day, that I'm not the only one who can't get through an episode of the show without tearing up. Either everyone on the construction site happened to be really in touch with their feelings, or there is just something about witnessing good things happening to people in need. Even more so, there is something deeply satisfying about being able to be a conduit, no matter how meager your contribution or trivial your involvement, through which a blessing may flow.

click to enlarge Paul Jugenheimer Sr. clips old Christmas lights from a tree at the Building Together Ministries community center, which was buffed out and given a new roof by Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON
  • Photo by Derek Anderson
  • Paul Jugenheimer Sr. clips old Christmas lights from a tree at the Building Together Ministries community center, which was buffed out and given a new roof by Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

The most wonderful thing about the entire project was not that Extreme Makeover agreed to build a fantabulous house for the Rigginses. Although it provides them a firm base from which to continue going out into the world and serving their neighbors, the new home still primarily benefits one family. But ABC and HomeLife departed from the show's formula somewhat and also provided a new roof, worth more than $100,000, to the building that houses the Hope Elementary Charter School, Building Together Ministries and the Raleigh Mennonite Church. They power-washed, painted and refinished the exterior of the building, an old public elementary school that's found new life as a communal hub. The building in that way mirrors its surrounding neighborhood's transition from a public housing project, with concentrated poverty, to a mixed-income development full of promise. Extreme Makeover provided the community center with a brand new kitchen, remodeled its auditorium and completely landscaped its grounds.

And just as investment in the community center will provide benefits over time to the neighborhood and city, there is an opportunity for an even greater foundation to be laid in the wake of the project.

Andrea Pinel, a consultant with Case Handyman and Remodeling in Cary, who also volunteers with Triangle Homeworks in her spare time, noted that on the Extreme Makeover: Home Edition project, there was a good mix of construction professionals, volunteer vets and individuals new to both construction and volunteerism.

"I have a friend who had never done construction in her life, and I taught her to nail up the chair-rail molding. There were a couple of women who had just been picking up trash and I brought them in to fill nail holes in the trim. And they did as well as professional crews I've seen. That's the beauty of it. This project brought all different types of people together for one goal," she said.

It's only natural that some of the volunteers were motivated by a chance to see celebrities, or just general curiosity. As a quid pro quo, Pinel made her friends who just wanted to be on the set also promise to volunteer four hours on a weekend for Triangle Homeworks, away from the camera. But Andrea saw a change in those who served during that week.

"Everybody was so giving. I worked till midnight and came back at 5 a.m., and there were people who'd never left. You just get an adrenaline rush from it. Everyone was in such a good mood, and gracious. After doing something like this, when you go back to your real job, you're more focused and you just feel better. It's just incredible. And the feeling is the same whether you're volunteering on a huge project like this or just helping fix someone's kitchen in Apex."

Pinel sees an opportunity to carry over the energy, goodwill and experience from this project to others. With the new volunteers Extreme Makeover generated, Triangle Homeworks will have an easier time handling upcoming projects, including their most ambitious endeavor to date, building a new homeless shelter in Raleigh.

click to enlarge A crowd of onlookers gathers outside the Rigginses' home in Raleigh as work goes late into the night. - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON
  • Photo by Derek Anderson
  • A crowd of onlookers gathers outside the Rigginses' home in Raleigh as work goes late into the night.

Envision, if you can, citizens, local government and the business community coming together to regularly provide much-needed repairs for local nonprofits and needy families. Picture, then, the model expanding beyond the building trades, to include information technology, financial and professional services. That would be truly extreme. That would be a foundation worth building on.

What I most wanted to find out while volunteering for a day on the Extreme Makeover project was whether it was truly possible for capitalism and altruism to occupy the same space. The answer is an emphatic "yes." I've written recently about the necessary evil of nonprofits having to be increasingly run like businesses in order to survive. Conversely, I can't think of a better "necessary good" than encouraging businesses to run more like nonprofits. There are three ways to affect that type of change.

Firstly, the people who work for (or own) these companies must be made aware of the needs of the community and empowered to undertake projects that benefit the common good.

Secondly, there should be a business benefit to be gained from being a good corporate citizen. Let's be real. At ABC, for all the goodwill and can-do spirit the cast and production staff have, you can bet that if the show's ratings dip precipitously, it will be gone. Consumers should provide patronage and a pat on the back to those companies that behave responsibly and better their communities. I'm not condoning needless or mindless consumerism. If you don't need a plasma TV, don't buy one. But if you are going to buy one, take into account a company's community track record in making your choice.

And thirdly, local governments should favorably recognize those businesses that make positive contributions and, ultimately, lessen the work that otherwise would fall to them, or the nonprofit sector. For example, schools in the Triangle are reputed to be among the best in the nation. However, with all of the corporate capital we have, there's no reason why they shouldn't be the absolute best, trailing, perhaps, only Silicon Valley, Calif., or Redmond, Wash. As part of efforts to roll-back corporate welfare, lawmakers should consider the contributions made by the companies and their employees, providing tax credits for the aggregate amount of time volunteered.

When an Olympics or major sporting event comes to an area, stadiums and other local improvements are left behind. Also left behind is the capacity for event planning and logistics that can be used on future projects. When all is said and done, I'd like to see an Extreme Makeover: Community Edition, in which we use the lessons learned from the TV-inspired rebuilding of the Rigginses' home in Raleigh. We have a unique opportunity to use the intangible infrastructure left behind. Those thousands of volunteers and dozens of businesses that are now sensitized to the needs of the community, as well as acquainted with the satisfaction that comes from filling them, are invaluable assets that should be utilized to help bridge the gap between what our community is and what we'd like it to be.

  • The recently completed Extreme Makeover: Home Edition project in Raleigh was a scripted Christmas miracle.

More by Derek Jennings

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