It probably wasn’t much of a surprise to Blake VanderWert and her seven kids that there was a living room full of media types in her New Prague home today. The dozens of shoes on the porch would’ve given it away if the four TV people who ran outside to stick microphones on her hadn’t — the better to capture her surprise when she walked into her home that volunteers have been renovating over the last three months for her and her husband, Sgt. Jonathan VanderWert.
The VanderWerts bought the home a couple of years ago to house their blended family. Jonathan intended to fix up the fixer-upper, and had stripped the roof when a massive storm rolled through last June, forcing him to gut the house and start over… except that the Minnesota National Guard picked a fine time to tell him he was being called to active duty and sent to Camp Anaconda in Iraq with the 2-147 Assault Helicopter Battalion.
With a house falling down, seven kids to feed, and a husband heading overseas, Blake VanderWert sought help from an agency, which put her in touch with Rebuilding Together Twin Cities. She was afraid the county would take her kids. Instead, a funeral home that owned a house nearby, gave it to the family to stay in while dozens of volunteers and companies renovated the home at no charge. Some of the kids stayed. A few others stayed with VanderWert’s ex-wife.
“It’s overwhelming and I have such a sense of gratitude,” Blake VanderWert said, as reporters tried to pull more out of her. But what else can you say besides “thank you” when a town contributes the money to buy all new furniture for the house that someone just rebuilt for you?
Her loss for words was shared an hour later by her husband, who was shown by satellite from Iraq (see above). “I’m very curious to see what’s been going on,” he said, sounding a touch concerned that it wouldn’t be just the way he had planned. But the volunteers planned on that, too. They shored up the damaged third floor, but left much of the work for him to do when he returns, which is just the way he wants it.
As compelling a story as the VanderWerts are, perhaps more camera time should’ve been given to some of the volunteers. Take Marty Schirber, for example. He’s the contractor who’s been in the home renovation business for years, but his son has taken over the business and “once you’ve driven the bus you don’t want to just be a passenger,” he said. So he now works with Rebuilding Together Twin Cities.
Before Sgt. VanderWert left for Iraq, Schirber had a long talk with him. “You just have to trust us,” he said.
“He was so proud of his wife for finding this resource and doing this on her own and he knew how much it meant to her. She’s written us letters saying, ‘you saved my family.'” he told me today.
Schirber is already planning a similar effort. “When you put a group of volunteers in a house like this and you work a day, at the end of the day, those volunteers have never felt better about themselves. They’re walking around high-fiving each other. My typical day is to show up with 30 volunteers and do 280 hours worth of work in a house. We can make a huge difference in a family, taking them from behind a curve, getting them ahead of the curve, in one day, just doing things that need doing around the house. It’s some of the most satisfying work I’ve ever done. I can’t talk about it without bawling.”
For the first time in months, the VanderWert family — except for one — will live together under the same roof tonight.
“I imagine the sliding hill down by the high school is in full force,” Jonathan said prior to the start of a news conference. It wasn’t. All the action was at his place.