JOLIET – With a creak of a handle, the wooden front door opened late Sunday night.
With wide eyes and jaws dropped, the Gibson family scanned their newly remodeled Joliet home in disbelief.
“Did I walk into the wrong house? Is this really my house,” 11-year-old Kaitlyn Gibson asked.
Kaitlyn was the first of her family of four to walk through the front door. In 48 hours, the 900-square-foot house had undergone a dramatic transformation thanks to a local nonprofit that helps children or adults battling a life-threatening physical or mental illness by renovating a room to heal in.
On April 23, the nonprofit Team Make a Difference received a letter from a mother concerned about her 34-year-old daughter, Sarah Gibson of Joliet, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 14 years ago.
Sarah and her husband, Tom, have two children – Kaitlyn and 6-year-old Addison. Tom works 16-hour days to provide for the family, and the house was falling apart.
“Sarah has progressive MS and was diagnosed while she was in college,” mother Lucinda Zolecki wrote. “She doesn’t receive disability because she didn’t pay in enough to Social Security, so they live paycheck to paycheck. She is my little girl and always will be, and I want the kids to have a childhood.”
According to the letter, Sarah graduated from college with honors and a bachelor’s degree in arts and social work. But because of the severity of her MS, she never was able to use her degree.
The letter also said Sarah has a motorized wheelchair, but no vehicle able to transport it, so Sarah rarely leaves the house, as it is hard for her to walk far with just a walker or a cane.
Because of the MS, Sarah also does not drive. The only time Sarah leaves the house is for physical therapy, which provides a ride, the letter stated.
Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease, one that damages myelin, the protective sheath that covers nerves, according to Mayo Clinic. Symptoms are varied, depending on the nerves that are affected and the severity of damage.
Symptoms include numbness, tingling and/or weakness; double or blurry vision, or partial vision loss; tremors, slurred speech, unsteady gait, fatigue, dizziness and problems with bowel and bladder function.
A nonprofit responds
That letter won the heart of Audra Crowther, founder and board member of Team Make a Difference, which is now in its second year of existence.
With her mom, Sandy Roechner, and sister, Adrianne Toke, as board members and volunteers – as well as countless family members, community members, and past makeover recipients as volunteers – this third home makeover project was in the works.
At 3:30 p.m. Friday, the family was sent on a weekend vacation donated by Grizzly Jack’s Grand Bear Resort, and the demolition crew began work at 4 p.m. Massive amounts of clutter, toys, and clothes were sorted, carpets were removed, walls were painted, and new beds and furniture were placed in each bedroom and family room.
Nan Webster of Joliet, the Gibsons’ neighbor since 2004, offered her garage to the volunteers to hold supplies and assemble furniture. Volunteer photographer Jacquelyne Rochelle took family photos, which were framed and placed in each room.
On Sunday night, the Gibsons pulled into the driveway to a porch full of volunteers, family and neighbors excited to see the final product. After seeing the home, Tom hugged Crowther and began to cry.
“This is unbelievable,” Tom said. “When I am working, I’m always worried my wife falling and all of the stuff everywhere made it hard for her.”
Sarah was glad for the new bed complete with new pillows, sheets and blankets. Sarah said insufficient rest at night makes mobility that much harder the next day. Because she struggles with blinds, her rooms now have blinds that easily open with a simple touch.
“I won’t mind being at home so much,” Sarah said.
The rooms now have plenty of storage – Sarah’s bedroom didn’t even have a closet – as well as ceiling fans. The family also has a kitchen table, another item not present in the home before the makeover.
Six-year-old Addison was in love with her new side of the room with its Elsa and Anna posters and a fancy chandelier – or diamond lamp, as she called it.
Although the girls are in the same room, Crowther put up a divider to give each girl space. But, it was her dad’s emotion that stood out the most to Addison.
“This is the first time I have seen my dad cry,” Addison said. “He’s excited because our redone house is so cool.”
As beautiful as the made-over home is with its beach theme – which Sarah had always wanted – Kaitlyn is happy that home life will now be less of a struggle for her mother.
“Now that our home is changed, it’s easier for my mom,” Kaitlyn said. “I help take care of my mom every day, and it was hard because my mom would fall when the house was a mess. The point of this makeover is to help her.”
Audra Crowther, founder and board member of Team Make a Difference, said volunteers – whether contractors or just the average helper – make the difference in each project. She said she is always looking for businesses to partner with during the projects the organization completes twice a year.
More information about Team Make a Difference can be found at www.tmadifference.com.