Eighth-grader Colleen Kelly inspects a certificate of appreciation awarded to St. Thomas the Apostle School for their efforts in remodeling a St. Vincent de Paul family’s home Nov. 3. Elizabeth Conn, her friend, watches Gloria, the family’s mom, hug dozens of volunteers. (Ambria Hammel/THE CATHOLIC SUN)

Even fairy tales starring a prince can end happily ever after — at least in this true version penned by about 50 young teenagers.

The eighth-graders are students at St. Thomas the Apostle and they spearheaded a home makeover through St. Vincent de Paul’s Fresh Perspective program. Six weeks of planning followed by a full day of work led up to the “big reveal” Nov. 3.

“Their house is so small,” Elizabeth Conn said outside the home.

Conn stood beside Colleen Kelly, her friend and fellow point-person for community service efforts at St. Thomas the Apostle. Both anxiously awaited the family’s arrival.

“They have four generations on one property. Their house is the size of my garage,” Kelly said.

The house east of Seventh Street and Southern Avenue is still fairly small, but the students stretched it out just enough and added all the right elements. They also revamped a second smaller shelter on the property where three others live.

Conn, who already used up two tissues on tears, grabbed the entire box just in time to reveal the biggest transformation: an additional bedroom. It was the first for 13-year-old Mario — the prince in the students’ story. He has Down syndrome  and has been sharing a bed with his mom and dad.

“He was so excited when he first saw it. Mario has never had his own room,” Conn said.

Mario jumped up and down then gave his new bed — covered in Cars-themed blankets and pillowcases — a big hug. A local contractor divided off a storage/laundry room to build his room. Volunteers laid down hardwood flooring and surrounded the space with wall stickers.

Fanny’s new room

Fanny, the family’s 16-year-old daughter, said the young volunteers made everything look spacious, especially in her room.

“It was pretty tight and hard to live in,” Fanny said of her old room.

They minimized the yellow paint on the walls, standardized the furniture and added large wall stickers and a little bling. It created style and character fitting of an aspiring law/counseling student. Fanny loved her room, but appreciated what the makeover did for her family far more.

Her mom and dad hadn’t even made it through the front door when Gloria, the mom, was overcome with emotion. Without words, Gloria was able to tell St. Thomas the Apostle moms exactly how she felt.

“She is the glue that keeps the family together,” Gabriela Bova, manager of St. Vincent de Paul’s community outreach programs wrote in the family’s bio.

She cooks not just for her family of four, but up to 12 people, all extended family, living on the property. But they had to eat in shifts or scattered about behind TV trays.

Kelly saw the new table, which expands to fit 12-14 people, as one of the bigger improvements. She estimated that 90 percent of the new items were recycled through St. Vincent de Paul or other means. Volunteers also repaired broken windows and upgraded everyone’s mattress and some furniture.

All were key steps that Gloria wanted to take as funds and time allowed. She cleans houses when work is available. Her husband hasn’t had a day off in three years working minimum wage to try to make ends meet. It’s not always enough.

“It was pretty emotional when I saw my parents cry,” Fanny said.

By the time Gloria and her husband made it into the living room, both were teary-eyed. The house they moved into a year ago was finally a home.

Storage space was finally adequate as was room for sitting and sleeping. The home had framed photos of the family on the wall for the first time. Mario’s stuffed animal monkey, which he carries practically everywhere, even had its own frame.

“Her dream was to make it really nice,” Fanny said, “I guess her dream really did come true.”

This was the third home makeover in which local Catholic school students partnered with St. Vincent de Paul’s Fresh Perspectives program. Conn described it as a heart-warming experience that helps the volunteers be thankful for what they have and helps others “by giving them what they never had the opportunity to have.”

“It makes me so happy to know we changed someone’s life,” she said.


Related links: