CHESAPEAKE BEACH, Md. – Winning an entire home makeover is something many people see on television and often may think it only happens to “other” people. But when "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" offered one as the grand prize in a contest to support a military family in the D.C. area, that dream became reality.
Lt. Col. Alex Stephenson, Army Senior Service advisor, stationed at the National Intelligence University, Washington, D.C., his wife Heather, and their three young children of Chesapeake Beach, Md., were the lucky winners of the contest and arrived at their newly-renovated home, February 13, with a warm welcome from their community.
“When we moved into the house, we knew that it was a fixer-upper cosmetically,” said Heather, a native of Jackson County, Ga. “Come to find out there was so much more wrong with the house than we had originally known.”
Immediately upon moving into their new home, the roof started to leak and they quickly learned of other problems with the house.
We realized there was no vapor barrier and the wiring in the house was so bad that when the makeover was done they said they were surprised the house didn’t blow up, said Heather.
To the Stephensons' surprise, it was Heather’s sister, Kristen Mosuch, who entered them into the contest.
“I couldn’t think of anybody who qualified more,” said Kristen. “I thought, ‘what a fun thing to do,’ to enter them in just to see what would happen.”
The contest was created to show appreciation for the service and sacrifices made by military members.
Not only did Alex serve three combat deployments, he also served tours in Columbia, Peru, Bolivia and El Salvador, and is a Purple Heart recipient.
Modest about being the recipient of the contest, Alex, a native of Medfield, Mass., was hesitant to accept being the “winner.”
“You always think there’s somebody worse off,” said Alex. “There’s always someone who deserves it more. You’re indoctrinated in the Army of selfless service … so I felt funny at first because it’s supposed to be for my service, and I don’t think I deserve that.”
“I couldn’t believe that we won because you feel like it’s happening to somebody else,” said Heather. “When I found out that we had won, it was more than I could handle, and I was so grateful because I had no idea how much something like this could mean to a family like ours.”
Heather also served in the Army. She joined the Army National Guard as a unit supply specialist in 1999. However, shortly after enlisting, her unit quickly noticed her natural talents as an artist and she was tasked with additional duty to design and produce artwork, a task more commonly done by a multimedia illustrator. It was at that point Heather decided she wanted to go on active duty, so she volunteered for a 13-month tour at Camp Howze, South Korea. At the end of her tour she completed the remainder of her active service at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Out of the many applicants the contest received for military members whose homes needed work, it was Kristen’s email to the show that stood out the most.
Beyond the problems with their home, the Stephensons experienced other challenges after Alex returned from his second tour in Afghanistan in the summer of 2010.
“Heather had this debilitating accident where she really couldn’t do anything for a month,” said Alex. “So I went from being away to being primary care giver.”
Heather was traveling home on her motorcycle from a “bike night” in town when according to eyewitnesses a motorist forced her off the road. Though her memory of what happened next is hazy at best, she knows she was involved in an accident that would change her life forever.
“I was going about 25 miles an hour,” said Heather. “What I was told was that it looked like someone had forced me over into the median and my front tire hit the lip of the median … I flipped over the bike, hit my face on the front of the bike, and I hit the ground.”
Although she was not going fast and wearing a helmet, the impact was enough to cause extensive damage to her face and body.
“I broke my arm,” she said. “I had fluid in my lungs, I broke my jaw in multiple places, and lost all my teeth. It almost ripped off my jaw.”
Heather faced a long road to recovery and has needed many surgeries to reconstruct her face.
“I’ve had about 12 surgeries," she said. "I’ve had a lot of surgeries to correct the surgeries that I’ve had. For instance, they moved my upper jaw so much that my sinuses were messed up and then I had to have sinus surgeries.”
I had to undergo reconstructive surgeries and multiple bone graphs from my hips to rebuild my skull, she added.
The mounting medical bills created continued financial hardship. Because many of Heather’s surgeries were reconstructive in nature, most of the money they had saved to repair their home went to cover medical expenses instead.
Even if I had not had my surgeries, there was no way we would be able to afford to fix the house to the extent that it needed because the cost of the necessary repairs was more than $100,000, said Heather.
The home makeover gave the Stephenson family a new start but it was the community involvement that overwhelmed them the most.
The first thing that struck me when arriving home after the makeover was seeing all the people in the front yard, she said.
Those people included family members, friends, neighbors, and many other members of the local community. Many of the people that came to volunteer didn’t even know us and took a lot of their own time to help with the work that went into the house.
Additional volunteers included: local business owners, members of the American Legion, city council members, police officers and even local Boy Scouts came to pitch in among many others.
The whole process was amazing, said Kristen, who personally participated in the renovation. People were there morning, noon and night to work on the house doing all kinds of things from painting to the actual construction.
“Personally, I would like to thank them,” said Heather. “We are so grateful because of everyone’s help and coming together for this.”
Even a late-season storm couldn’t prevent this galvanized community from abandoning this project.
The winter has been unusually cold, producing a record snowfall, but that didn’t stop this community from coming together to help make this dream a reality for the Stephensons, and many of the volunteers were standing in the yard to greet them when they arrived home.
It was snowing like mad when we pulled into the driveway, said Alex, and there were tons of people in the yard. Then we glimpsed the house for the first time and it was shocking to see how different it looked. It was like moving into a new home, he added.
“When we came into the house I couldn’t believe it,” said Heather. “I couldn’t believe how modern it was and how they paid attention to all the little details.”
The interior of the house was completely updated including new stainless steel appliances and a number of stylish reconstructions. The much-needed repairs to electrical wiring and plumbing were also integrated into the remodeling.
One of the neat things they did, said Alex, is they built the bedroom doors and the headboard of the new bed using wood salvaged from a 200-year-old barn in Pennsylvania. The elegant details made the inside of the house feel more like a home.
Even the outside of the home received a makeover. It was painted and the crew constructed a modern carport to replace the tattered, aging tent that served as a temporary garage.
Throughout their nine-year marriage and the many challenges they have experienced with Alex’s multiple deployments, Heather’s accident, raising three children and a house in dire need of repair, this Army Strong family’s strength and resiliency speaks for itself.
“The whole process was so incredible,” said Heather. “But what I was really touched by is the way the community came together.”
“We know our next-door neighbors pretty well but we haven’t really integrated into the larger community so much,” she said, “and the way everybody, even total strangers, came in and worked on the house was incredible. That was so impressive and touching for us.”
It was through this overwhelming generosity from friends, family, and neighbors that have allowed the Stephensons to overcome so many of life’s challenges and live in a house
worthy of raising a family. However, it was through the selfless acts of complete strangers that show that good things don’t just happen to “other” people.