A New Prague family of 11 with a dad in Iraq gets a big boost from a program that helps military families with house repairs.
When Blake VanderWert called her son's school to report that he needed to miss the day on Friday, she found herself struggling to explain why.
"A -- press conference?" she offered, wondering if anyone would buy it.
She was telling the truth.
The street outside her modest home in New Prague was closed down. Rows of chairs and television cameras appeared. The mayor and police chief turned up. VIPs from Washington, who didn't all know how to even pronounce the name of her town, shivered in the cold.
The wife and family of Sgt. Jonathan VanderWert, now serving in Iraq, had just become the first Minnesotans to benefit from a new national program aimed at helping military families by fixing up their homes.
They chose a wife left for 15 months with nine kids in a dilapidated fixer-upper that they'd bought on the cheap and that her husband had expected to spend three years putting right.
Now, in "Extreme Makeover" fashion, that was all to be collapsed into just a few weeks, thanks to a houseful of volunteers.
"I just wanted Sheetrock for the boys' bedrooms -- and a bathroom door would have been nice," Blake told the assembled crowd. "Jon would be -- is -- overwhelmed."
So was she, when she was led to the back of a big truck overflowing with new appliances for her family: new washer, new dryer, new fridge, new stove, new everything.
"You need to understand," she said, "that I didn't even have a dishwasher before now."
With nine kids, she added: "That. Is. Major."
The VanderWerts are among the first 30 families chosen by a program called Heroes at Home, a cooperative venture between Sears and the Washington-based nonprofit home-rehab agency Rebuilding Together.
Two families become one
Two years ago, the couple, blending a family with children from each of their previous marriages, bought a proud old 1890s-era 2½ story brick home a couple of blocks off of New Prague's historic main street. Staying home while Blake worked and tending to so many children, including babies, Jonathan wasn't able to accomplish much before he was called up in August.
When volunteers arrived, walls and ceilings were missing in parts of the house. Wiring hung out of walls. Only one bathroom worked. A 1950s kitchen was stuffed into a narrow addition in the back.
Jonathan, however, speaking by video clip from Iraq, proudly pronounced it "a classic," as if it were a '60s Mustang pocked with rust. "Hopefully," he said, addressing the assembled volunteers via a screen and projector set up in the light snow on the street outside his home, "you will see my vision."
A few minutes earlier, as the home's ancient stained bathroom fixtures lay dumped in the back yard, one volunteer asked another, "Will it be all-new porcelain fixtures?" The droll reply: "I hope so."
T.J. Cantwell, national director of veterans housing for Rebuilding America, stood nearby. "Our first campaign, May through July, raised $1.3 million," he said. "With that we plan to do at least 100 homes by next July. Several other Minnesota families have contacted us, needing assistance."