The Army family of nine gathered at the bottom of the stairs of their newly refurbished basement and looked around, eyes wide and momentarily speechless.
"That's a first for my family," said father Brandon, commenting on the quiet. Brandon is an Army staff sergeant; his command instructed him not to use his last name in the media.
Home makeovers are not a core mission of Operation Homefront, but a group of home services professionals approached the regional office with the offer of the holiday donation to make a difference for a military family. Home Service Solutions Group is a collaboration of 33 licensed, insured professionals who provided services such as electrical work, dry wall and carpet installation, painting and cabinetry. All told, the retail value of the donation was about $60,000.
The holidays had come early. Mom Jennifer said her son Adrian had said, "I'm usually excited about what I'm getting for Christmas … this time I'm not even thinking about that. I'm just thinking about what they're going to do to the house."
The family stayed at a hotel for the last few days of the refurbishing, and saw the final product Wednesday.
While the family members knew about the makeover of their basement, they were surprised with new furniture, decorations and piles of Christmas presents. The project started Oct. 29 with planning and design, but physical work began Dec. 1. Interior designer Christine Wiott said she worked with the family to find out how they used the space, "and how they dreamed of using the space."
"I can't wait to see the looks on the kids' faces," she said. Later, as she watched the children moving to each new room, she wiped tears from her eyes.
The children were first drawn to the plush new sectional couch, where they settled into soft nooks and crannies.
When Operation Homefront first approached him about the refurbishing, Brandon said, "We were excited, but a little unsure. We're used to doing everything ourselves, and it's hard to give up control. We were saving money to do it ourselves." They've renovated other parts of their 1950s-vintage home, but knew the basement carpet was going to be a big project. Previous owners had added layers of carpet without removing the previous layer.
Jennifer said the new carpet was her favorite part of the project. "The thought of removing the carpet gave me a migraine," she said. "To have them come in and do it and for it to be done, is awesome."
She also appreciated the attention given to her 79-year-old grandfather's woodworking, including a Nativity scene, Noah's ark, and toys for the children. In appreciation for the donation, she presented two wood Noah's arks to Operation Homefront and to Home Services Solutions Group.
The crews built shelving, cabinets and a granite-topped table for the kids' computer area. Fourteen-year-old Abby was seated on a new bench surrounding a pillar in the room. She liked the look and the utility. The previous cabinets near the pillar "made the room look smaller," she said.
"This is more than what I would have been able to do. I would have only been able to do this in pieces," as time allowed, Brandon said.
It's even more of a gift, knowing that he'll be going on a two-year unaccompanied tour of duty overseas within the next few months. Two of the children have health problems that prevent the family from moving overseas with him. "It gives me more relief, knowing my family is not stuck with a half-finished basement, working with what they've got instead of what they need," he said.
The youngest child, Tierney, 5, said her favorite new things are "the couch and the presents." But she stopped only briefly as she loaded blocks into a wooden truck made by her great-grandfather — clearly happy to be back in her basement.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.