Editor’s Note: Artwork as attached, ALL with click-to-enlarge
All photos 2009 by Tali Whittemore

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Sean and Matt Murphy were very, very busy last week, if you needed them. Together, the two LDS brothers donated literally hundreds of hours of service as they and their construction companies helped ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition complete their latest home-build in the Washington, D.C., area.

Show host Ty Pennington, right, watches as Sean confers with designer Paige Hemmis and comic actor Tyler Perry. On the far left are series regulars Paul DiMeo (in fireman’s hat) and Ed Sanders. (All photos 2009 by Tali Whittemore.)

The premise of the show is to rebuild or remodel the home of a needy and deserving family in a remarkably short period of time. The crew has only a week to rebuild, renovate, repair, refurnish, and redecorate while the family is away enjoying an all-expense paid vacation to some exotic location (this time it was Disney World). When the family returns, they are greeted by a completely new home.

Ty Pennington, the Extreme team leader, goofing off while the house is being demolished.

The Extreme crew looks on as the Tripp home is torn down.

Such an undertaking requires vast amounts of resources and manpower, all of which must be donated. Sean, Matt, and the local LDS community had the unique opportunity to help in this ambitious endeavor.

For this particular episode, Extreme decided to tackle its largest project to date. They elected to improve not only a needy family’s home, but a local community center – the Fishing School – as well. The total square footage of the finished buildings would top 9000 square feet, and the two properties weren’t even adjacent to one another.  The new home was to be built in Hyattsville, Maryland, and the Fishing School was twenty minutes away in Washington.

Burch Builders (where Matt is the director of production) agreed to do the project, but enlisted the help of G&M Contracting Inc. (owned by Sean) when they learned of the size of the undertaking.

The Tripp family’s home prior to demolition.   Latter-day Saint contractor Sean Murphy stands in front, looking considerably more rested than he would be for the next week.

Sean didn’t take the proposition seriously at first. “When I was first approached by Matt, I didn’t think he was serious. My brother called me twice about it, and then when [the owner of Burch Builders] called me, I knew it was real.

“I mean, the size of the project was so big, and the economy is bad. These are tough times. And to do something like this for free?” The recession has been particularly rough for homebuilders, and outrageous endeavors such as this are not to be undertaken lightly.

Behind the Scenes

Planning for the event began only four weeks prior to the actual build. Normally, such an undertaking requires at least six months. Those four short weeks were very long ones for Sean and Matt, who spent the time drawing up building plans and gathering supplies. Finding willing donors was not always easy. “It was very hard,” Matt said, “It’s like being on a mission: you spend more time getting told no than actually having success. But you hope that your effort will leave an impact on others.”

Roughly 3,300 volunteers would be needed to complete the project. A call for help was issued on the local stake listserv. (Matt is in the Arlington Ward, McLean Virginia Stake, and Sean is in the Wakefield Ward, Annandale Virginia Stake.)  Any willing stake members were encouraged to volunteer, and many rose to the occasion. Jeremy Freeman, a friend to the Murphy brothers, took the whole week off to work on the house. “I wanted to do my part,” he said simply.

Jeremy Freeman, a local church member,  stands in front of the Tripp family’s finished home. He volunteered the entire week.

The rest of the community also rallied around the cause. A staggering 8,000 individuals offered to volunteer on the builds. (Volunteers with applicable skills were able to labor on the actual construction of the buildings. Non-skilled volunteers were used to clean the site, serve meals, and help in any other way necessary.)

Although Matt and Sean were too busy supervising their projects to count ward and stake members who participated, Sean estimated he saw ten to twenty ward members among the volunteers.  Most of the volunteers were recruited through the United Way, but there was a strong LDS presence on the site.

Sean Murphy gives directions to one of the volunteers at the Tripp home site.

The week of the build arrived all too soon, and the rushed pace became frantic. Builders worked around the clock and practically on top of each other to complete the project on schedule. Sean and Matt estimated that they each personally worked well over 100 hours throughout the week. Most work days lasted at least sixteen hours, and as we chatted after the “reveal” Matt admitted that he was going on twenty-four hours – for the second time.

Normally, the work of the different tradesmen is staggered, so that the workers stay out of each other’s way. But on this accelerated schedule electricians, dry-wallers, and plumbers labored side by side – and they demonstrated remarkable civility towards one of another.

“We had 200 to 300 people in that little house working together and I never heard one person raise a voice the whole week,” said Sean. He told of their first night working on the building: “We didn’t have lights up so they were working in the dark, with no fan – and it was hot in there. And no one ever got mad.”

Matt noted the same spirit of tolerance and cooperation at the Fishing School build site. “Everybody got along and worked well together because they knew why they were doing it.”

When asked to put a monetary value on all the services provided by their companies, the brothers estimated that each company donated considerably more than $100,000 in services and labor. Countless other companies also donated thousands of dollars in services and supplies.

The recipients of such significant generosity were not undeserving. They themselves have dedicated their entire lives to the service of others (giving service is rarely a lucrative business, which would explain why they needed assistance from Extreme). More than 17,000 applications pour into Extreme headquarters each week. From that substantial pool, the Tripp family and Tom Lewis’ Fishing School were selected.

The Tripp family runs a “bus ministry.” Operating under the philosophy that idle hands are the devil’s tools, the Tripps use an old blue school bus to take local youth on outings after school, during the hours when most mischief occurs. They also open their home to the youth. It serves as a wholesome hangout location. The Tripps encourage the youth to “be different” – to stand apart from what they find on the streets of the community.

The Tripps and their three small children were living in a cramped 900 square-foot home that was badly in need of repairs. Sean Murphy’s company tackled the construction of their new home. Completely demolishing the old structure and building anew from the foundation up, the builders attempted to create an energy efficient home that would have low maintenance costs. The new 2800 square-foot home has solar panels and geothermal heating and cooling.

In keeping with the theme of at-risk-youth-centered service, the second recipient of Extreme‘s services was Tom Lewis, the founder of a local community center called the Fishing School. It serves as an after-school school for children.

The founder of the Fishing School, Tom Lewis, talks with his students before the demolition of the Fishing School.

Paulie (Extreme regular Paul DiMeo) hanging out with students at the Fishing School.

The Fishing School prior to demolition.

The demolition of the Fishing School

Camera filming a backhoe as it demolishes the Fishing School

The name of the center is derived from the adage, “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and feed him for life.”

Inside the school, the youth engage in learning activities and are taught to value education and strong character. Parents are also offered workshops and training at the school’s Parent Support Center.

Ty and a million other people crowd inside the Fishing School while it is under construction.

The Fishing School’s makeover was completed by Burch Builders. Again demolishing the entire structure and beginning anew, the builders expanded the building’s square footage to 6400. The new structure was also created to be energy conservative. A weather system was installed on the roof, along with solar panels and high-efficiency water heaters and pumps. The new classrooms have smart boards, computers, televisions, encyclopedia sets, and other learning materials.

With a project life-span of only seven days, there was no time to waste and no room for error. But almost immediately, the builds suffered a major setback. Builders hit water as they were digging the foundation of the Tripp’s home. It was necessary to dig fifteen feet down in order to reach solid ground.

The Tripp home on Thursday, Day 5

By the time the foundation was set, the builds were twenty-four hours behind. The builders doubled the night shifts in an effort to recover the lost time.

Ultimately, only the house would be completed on schedule. The Fishing School’s “reveal” was postponed for 24 hours.

The Fishing School on Thursday, Day 5

No one anticipated the full effect the presence of the Extreme team would have on the community. The drastic need for volunteers jolted everybody into action, and the ensuing spirit of service gathered momentum and took a life of its own.

To satisfy the overwhelming demand for service opportunities, additional projects were undertaken in conjunction with the two builds. A nearby public school was beautified by a number of the 5,000 surplus volunteers from the Extreme builds. These volunteers were aided by scores of new volunteers who had come solely to help with the school and had never signed up to help with Extreme.

A volunteer helps beautify Ron Brown Middle School, located a block from the build site.

The show’s presence in town had created a “good opportunity and an interesting occasion to get involved,” explained Corinn Bovi, one of the volunteers, as she spread mulch around the base of a tree. Volunteers weeded, spread mulch, built park benches, painted, cleaned graffiti, and cleared storage areas for the school.

The event was planned by United Way and Greater D.C. Cares, two service organizations that were charged with the task of mobilizing and coordinating the army of volunteers for the Extreme builds. The preparation for this project also should have taken months, but it fell together in four weeks.

William Hanbury, CEO of United Way of the National Capital Area, practically glowed with excitement as he talked of the surge of volunteerism. “This is a giving community. This is the real D.C. These are all business professionals. Everyone only hears about the politics and the intrigue that go on here in D.C., but this is the real D.C. This is very gratifying.”

The builders themselves also took on additional projects. They assisted two other households in the neighborhood: an elderly woman was experiencing drainage problems in her yard and a family of seven needed repairs to their roof after a large branch fell on it. The builders dug a ditch in the woman’s yard and repaired the damaged roof.

The owner of the house across the street from the Fishing School donated the house to serve as the Fishing School’s Parent Support Center. The builders agreed to fix that one up, too.

Many additional improvements were made to the community simply by the preparation for the builds. For example, old lots were cleaned up so that people could park in them.

Representatives from United Way and Greater D.C. Cares are hopeful that this experience will leave a lasting impression on the participants. “We hope to create volunteers for life,” said Dr. Madye Henson, CEO of Greater D.C. Cares.

Service can bond a community together. Hence, life-time servers are crucial to a community’s well-being.  “Volunteerism is where you generate the passion for people,” explained Angela Woods, COO of United Way of the National Capital Area.

The day of the “reveal” was a poignant mixture of exhilaration and exhaustion for everyone involved. The Tripp family and Mr. Lewis were overcome by the outpouring of generosity from their own community.

The Tripp family’s first glimpse of their new home. New buses were also provided for their bus ministry.

The builders looked just as amazed as the recipients did at the feat they had just accomplished. I asked Sean if there were times when he feared they wouldn’t make it. “Just about up until the time we got it done,” was his response. “I think everyone ended up giving a lot more than they first anticipated,” added Jeremy.

The families of the builders were delighted for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build with Extreme, and at the finish they were excited to get their husbands, fathers, and brothers back. Angela, Sean’s wife, said, “We’ve missed him, but it’s service. It’s been tough, but you can’t go wrong when you are serving others.”

Sean poses with his family and friends after the “reveal.” From left to right: Jeremy Freeman, Arzie (9), Sean Murphy, Spencer (son-in-law, 20), Marin (6), Rylee (3), Amy (20), Angela (wife), Hailey (8)

In the past, the family has watched the show together, and even speculated about what it would be like to build for Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. It’s difficult to comprehend the colossal and concentrated effort that goes into making such a project a success, or its far-reaching consequences. As Matt and Sean learned, those involved find themselves stretched and challenged and working beyond what they would have thought were their limits.

“It’s been a long week,” said Matt, “A long six weeks,” he corrected himself. “It was stressful. It was not fun,” said Sean.

“That’s the kind of service that only feels good when it’s over,” said Jeremy, laughing.

Matt and his wife Christine pose in front of the finished Fishing School.

Why do something so difficult and demanding? As Matt explained, “It’s about a community that doesn’t have a lot of hope. It’s about teaching kids to be good members of society, and helping them to excel in school so that they can go to college and have the opportunities that other kids have. That’s what it means to me.”

So that’s it, then. The Extreme build has generated a service-craze and energized and unified a community. Worth it? Yes, most definitely.

The Tripp family waves to the audience from the steps of their new home.

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