Usually, participants in a Christmas in April project improve a person's home with a big flurry of work begun and finished in just one day.
But thanks to Centreville United Methodist Church (CUMC) and its project captain Lee Caslavka, a Fairfax woman with multiple sclerosis received a complete basement renovation that spanned 10 days. If she'd had to pay for the work, he said, it would have probably cost her $20,000.
"But to me, the time and money I have spent on this project is nothing, compared to being able to help someone who really needs this for a better life," explained Caslavka, of Fair Lakes Chase. "God has blessed me with a wonderful wife of 18 years, four healthy children and a successful business I can use to help people in times of need."
And he and more than 50 other volunteers did just that to make life easier for Deborah Kenney, a 53-year-old grandmother. Doctors diagnosed her illness in 1990 and, since then, it's deteriorated further.
Actually, CUMC installed handrails in her home, painted and did various repairs there for its 2003 Christmas in April project and hadn't planned on returning. But, said Caslavka, "When we found out that her disease had gotten so much worse that she needed more help, we decided to go back again this year."
His wife Cheryl was Kenney's physical therapist, and she'd told him that Kenney could no longer walk upstairs in her house. So he called RPJ of Arlington — which founded Christmas in April — and asked if the company would approve CUMC's returning to her house this year.
Once RPJ agreed, Caslavka conferred with Patti Dennis, director of the company's Christmas in April program. "We decided the scope of the project, the work to be done and the amount of labor and materials required," he said.
RPJ HOUSING Development Corp. has sponsored Rebuilding Together (with Christmas & Sukkot in April) in Arlington and Fairfax counties and Fairfax City and Falls Church since 1988. With the untiring, selfless efforts of nearly 40,000 community volunteers, RPJ Housing has repaired more than 1,240 homes and nonprofit facilities.
The work is done free of charge in partnership between the sponsor (such as CUMC), recipient and RPJ. Sponsors donate $2,500 each toward the Christmas in April fund, which is used to repair houses in the project.
"It takes a lot of time and effort, but I have fun doing it and the group at CUMC always responds to whatever I need," said Caslavka. "And a Centreville man who worked on Christmas in April projects in Washington, D.C., looked us up on the RPJ Web site, found CUMC's project and came and worked two days. That was pretty neat."
When the dust cleared (literally), Kenney was able to move from her upstairs bedroom into spacious, handicap-friendly, living quarters in the completely revamped basement containing everything she needs on one level. Her daughter, son-in-law and their children relocated from there to the main floor of the house, and Kenney no longer has to climb up and down stairs.
"It will have a tremendous impact on my life," she said. "My disease was progressing to the point where I was falling constantly down the stairs. On Easter Sunday, I sprained my ankle; and the Saturday before that, it literally took me three hours to go up two flights of stairs."
But help was on the way from Christmas in April, and Caslavka was just the person to head up the job. "I've been a general contractor for 19 years," he explained. "So, nine years ago, when [CUMC] needed someone to lead this project, I knew it was right up my alley."
Although the official Christmas in April weekend was April 24-25, volunteers began work on Kenney's house on April 16. "I pulled in guys from my company, Cas & Sons Contracting Inc., to do the demolition work," said Caslavka. Soon, his crew was knocking out walls and doors to enlarge the basement — which wasn't at all handicap accessible.
"The doors were small and the bathroom was just 6x5 feet," he said. "Her laundry room was just a washer and dryer placed next to the hot-water heater and furnace. But there was no way for her to get to it directly, without going either up or down stairs. And she couldn't get downstairs to do laundry without someone helping her walk."
WORKMEN WIDENED all the doorways and eliminated the doors at each end of the hall. The existing bedroom was too small for her wheelchair, so they knocked out its back wall and extended it another 10 feet to the garage. They installed a 36-inch-wide door into her bedroom and built a closet along one end of the room.
"At the other end of the room, we put in an L-shaped countertop with cabinets underneath for storage and a computer workspace on the counter," said Caslavka. Next, they demolished the bathroom, pulled out the old toilet, shower, sink and vanity and pushed out the walls so Kenney would have room for her wheelchair.
They also moved one of the bathroom walls about 8 inches to accommodate the washer and dryer and enable Kenney to enter the laundry room from the hallway, instead of having to climb over the water heater to reach it. They also moved the wall on the opposite side of the bathroom 4 1/2 feet. On April 17, workers began framing the new bedroom and bathroom.
"Then we had to tear up all the [bathroom-floor] concrete with a jackhammer to move the plumbing to the new location of the toilet, vanity, etc.," said Caslavka. "One of my plumbers, Ron Stevens of Stevens & Wrenn Plumbing & Heating, volunteered all his time, materials and labor."
Stevens did this work, April 19, the same day church volunteers patched the bathroom floor. Then, from April 21-23, Charlie Bowman of Bowman Ceramic Tile installed ceramic tile on the floor and shower — which was created especially for Kenney.
"We built a low-curb, handicap shower with a seat and grab bars," said Caslavka. "We custom-built it to fit the wheelchair." Church members painted the bathroom, April 24, and Bowman returned two days later to grout the floor. Caslavka said church members helped all but one day of the 10-day project.
Sully Station's Craig Trumbull, of CUMC, enjoyed the fellowship of working toward a good cause with other members of his church. He praised Caslavka for "leading the program, year in and year out." And he said the church volunteers "get a great deal of satisfaction out of providing this type of service and mission work to others in the community."
CUMC'S MICHAEL FIELDS of Virginia Run said it's important to help those needing it, and he especially liked "the team spirit shared with the other church members in working on this project."
On April 22-23, volunteers installed drywall in the bathroom, bedroom and hallway — and in an extra wall they built to block off the furnace area. And three women planted flowers in the yard. Then on April 24, CUMC members worked from 8 a.m.-5 p.m., cleaning the yard, putting together cabinets for the bedroom and the family room and painting the basement.
"I took Mrs. Kenney outside to see everyone, and she spoke of how God was working through them — and how God sent Cheryl to her, in the first place," said Caslavka. "It was very emotional; I love doing work for people who appreciate it."
On April 27, Stevens installed the sink and toilet and hooked up all the water lines and, on April 28, volunteers finished installing all the countertops and cabinets. "We had to customize the cabinets so they'd fit into the countertop," explained Caslavka. "That way, she could get her wheelchair under it, but not have to reach too high for anything."
The three cabinets in the family room, plus a small refrigerator, were installed underneath a new countertop with a sink and space for a microwave. "Now, she has everything she needs down there," said Caslavka. "She can eat, shower and sleep." Added Trumbull: "It was incredible — a transformation — like a new lease on life for her. And it provided her a safe, livable environment."
Last Thursday, April 29, RPJ's Patti Dennis and three others from the firm, plus Lee and Cheryl Caslavka, moved Kenney downstairs into her new surroundings. "I wouldn't let her go downstairs until then," said Lee Caslavka. "I wanted it to be a surprise for her. She smiled and cried a little and thanked everyone for everything they'd done. It made it all worthwhile."
"I WAS overwhelmed," said Kenney. "And it's absolutely beautiful, what they do. I'm just blessed beyond measure." Caslavka said his employees probably put in 150 hours, in addition to all the hours the church group logged. But, he said, "They chipped in and helped out because they knew it was for someone who really needed it."
When CUMC was seeking someone to lead its Christmas in April project, nine years ago, church member Hal MacDonald encouraged Caslavka and said he'd never regret anything he did to help the recipients. "He was my mentor and friend, and he passed away, last year," said Caslavka. "So I dedicated this year's project to him, and I know he was watching over me when we were doing it."
Meanwhile, Kenney feels like she has "a whole apartment." And now she can go out the garage door in her wheelchair, instead of having to use the stairs. She said what everyone did for her was truly heartwarming: "It just makes me know that God keeps His promise to take care of those who praise and worship Him."