Spirit of the season? Newly blended family has it nailed

  • Article by: KIM ODE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 31, 2012 - 2:31 PM

A newly blended family comes together to help provide what all families need: Simple, decent housing.

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While waiting for their sons, Lee and Karen Newcomer worked on putting up towel racks in the upstairs bathroom.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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Peter Ford, bleary from college finals, aimed the drill bit into the cement of the doorway for the threshold, but found it slow going. Lee Newcomer wondered if they needed a different drill bit. Both shrugged. They're as new to this construction stuff as they are to being in the same family.

Karen Newcomer is their common denominator. She and Lee, who married on Aug. 18, decided that having their six kids (three of his, three of hers) help them work on a Habitat for Humanity house would be a neat way to start blending their households.

Even more: In a season about a family for which there was no lodging, what better way to celebrate than to help provide a family with a home?

"There's a lot of need in the world, but there's also a lot of need right here," said Karen Newcomer, for whom volunteering is like breathing. The concept of servant leadership even was part of their vows, with each washing the other's feet as a symbol of humility and service.

That wasn't the only memorable thing about their wedding: For gifts, they "registered" with Habitat for Humanity, seeking presents of donated time, financial contributions, "or just people's good thoughts for what we were doing," she said. "It was us being the catalyst to allow people to do good things."

The well-wishing was transformed last week into callouses and sawdust as Newcomers and Fords gathered to help install trim, patch walls, put up shelves and generally do whatever needed to be done to prepare the house in Shakopee for its first residents. Soon, a family of five from Ethiopia will move from their one-bedroom apartment into the putty-colored, two-story home trimmed with brick-red shutters.

The kids -- adults, really, between the ages of 19 and 29 -- have proved game for the Habitat experience.

"I'm really not the handy type," said Ford, a college student in Chicago. "But Karen's the lead dog in these situations and when she's got her head wrapped up in a project, it's actually fun to be part of the experience."

Sam Newcomer, who flew in from Washington, D.C., appreciated the double duty of the idea. "It's about the holidays, which are about family, but being able to help another family is pretty nice."

For Karen, the notion of lending a hand is rooted in her small-town upbringing. "Everyone looked out for each other," she said. Later, raising three kids on her own, "it was hard, but help always appeared."

She now owns a leadership training firm, Pecos Consulting. While coordinating a fundraiser for the Hopkins School District, she met Lee Newcomer, senior vice president of oncology, genetics and women's health with UnitedHealthcare. When they eventually decided to marry, the Minnetonka couple knew they lacked for nothing. "I mean, we didn't need another Crock-Pot," he said.

Habitat for Humanity is always in need of volunteers, said David Michaelson, the construction site supervisor whose Habitat T-shirt carries the legend: Simple, Decent. The Shakopee house has benefited from several crews, starting with professionals who dug, poured and capped the foundation. Then the volunteers arrived. Crews from Delta Air Lines worked for six weeks doing much of the actual construction. People cycled in and out.

The Newcomer contingent grew from being a family project to a community gathering -- a sort of destination reception. Her friends showed up, as well as people from his oncology department. The kids invited old classmates from Hopkins schools, which they attended. "They knew of each other, but didn't really know each other," Newcomer said of his and Karen's kids.

Mike Newcomer, lauded as the most naturally adept with power tools, is a college student in Bloomington. Alison Newcomer lives in New York City. Ryan Ford works in Chicago, and Christopher Ford lives in Minneapolis with his wife, Melissa. The Fords' father, Bill Ford, is Karen Newcomer's ex-husband.

The Newcomers know that the odds are slim that their far-flung family of twentysomethings will get together very often. So they look upon the home-building effort as perhaps the best gift of all.

"We've never done this sort of stuff before," Lee said of the challenges of figuring out drills and spackle, as well as family dynamics. But the dusty, sometimes confounding, frequently humorous experience is destined to become family lore.

"We'll all know each other differently after this," Karen said.

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185

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