Extreme Makeover Home Edition – Ottawa, Kansas: One Year Later and Growing Stronger

A year ago today Bill and I were busy preparing for the trip of a lifetime.  We both had work and school obligations to complete, kids to contend with and family pets to make arrangements for.  I actually had marked in my day planner for last year, “Class at 5:00 p.m. and final tonight!”  At the time, I was a graduate student at McKendree University working towards my professional counseling degree.  I had an awesome professor who allowed me to take my final early so that I could travel later in the week to Kansas with Bill.  So…Saturday, August 30th, 2011 Bill and I began our journey to Ottawa, Kansas.  We left Illinois at 3:00 pm.  We were on our way to help build Gina, Allen, Makale and Dreyson Hill’s beautiful home along with thousands of other volunteers and ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition show.  Little did Bill or I know the life changing impact that the event would have on us then and now.

So, how did all of this unfold?  Well…we learned about the opportunity due to my volunteer efforts with the Karla Smith Foundation.  We were graciously invited by Emily Smith, Mental Health Advocate and former Executive Director of Bring Change 2 Mind.  Bill and I had talked for years about our desire to volunteer.  Finally, the opportunity presented itself, and we couldn’t resist.  I mean…how could we pass up an opportunity to volunteer with the ABC Extreme Makeover: Home Edition show?!  We couldn’t!  So on we went…

Sunday morning, July 31, 2011 at 8:00 a.m. Bill and I arrived on a dusty, scorching hot set along with thousands of volunteers and the t.v. crew.  And the rest…well…I can’t even begin to explain how phenomenal the experience was.  Instead of trying to cover what happened over the course of the 7 days I’d like to share with you a few of the amazing people we met.  Honestly, everyone we came in contact with was pretty darn amazing!  However, there were a few people that we would connect with that would greatly impact our lives over the course of the next year and for years to come!

Before I continue though, I’d like to ask you a couple of questions.  Have you ever met someone before that you feel you were supposed to meet?  When you met that person did you feel like they were a game changer?  Didn’t you feel, when you met those people, that they were going somewhere in life?  I don’t know about you, but I find that these are the people that make you want to be better than you are.  They strike a positive chord deep within your soul.  And in turn you find renewed strength.   That is what happened to Bill and I.  Every person we met over the course of the seven days had that affect on us.  Even my own husband had that affect on me.

So, who are some of these people that impacted our lives so greatly?  Well, first and foremost I have to say the Hill Family including Gina’s parents Loren and Sharon Middlebusher and Gina’s sister Chris Middlebusher.  Bill and I didn’t know them before the home makeover began and yet now we find that they have become incredibly special and important friends.  Life wouldn’t be the same without them.  In fact, due to Bill being shot by gunfire in a horrific drive-by shooting and rampage in Wichita, Kansas years ago we didn’t like to visit Kansas.  That was the last place we desired to go.  But now we feel different.  While in Ottawa last year Bill felt finally at peace with the incident, and we find that we desire to go to Ottawa whenever possible!  We learned that it wasn’t Kansas that we needed to avoid.  It was so amazing to me because my husband has coped silently for years with PTS due to the shooting, and there we were helping build a home for Allen who also lives with PTS.  During the build Bill didn’t feel alone anymore.  It was finally safe for him to talk about it.  By opening up to the volunteer experience in Ottawa Bill and I walked away with a profound sense of healing and new and incredible friends.  We were supposed to be in Ottawa, Kansas July 31st, 2011 through August 7th, 2011.  It was clearly meant to be.  I like to believe that it was orchestrated from above.  Below is a video of the first half of the Hill Family episode.  To watch the second half of the episode you can go to: http://abc.go.com/watch.


In addition to meeting the Hill’s, Bill and I had the privilege of meeting Valerie Brown who was just on Late Show with David Letterman last night!  Over the course of that week Bill and I saw Valerie around the set, but I especially recall meeting her at the mental health awareness tent.  I learned at the time that she volunteers with The Mission Continues.  And Bill and I had the privilege of sharing a table with her at the after party.  We knew then that she was going places and going places she is!  Thank you Valerie!  We are so proud to know you!  Your strength and courage to advocate for others is contagious!  We are better people because of you.  To learn more about Valerie and her prior military experience and future goals I encourage you to check out the video below.

I also had the privilege of being introduced to and visiting with Cinda and Linea Johnson.  This past May their book titled “Perfect Chaos: A Daughter’s Journey to Survive Bipolar, a Mother’s Struggle to Save Her” was published and released by St. Martin’s Press.  To learn more about their journey and to purchase a copy you can click here: http://www.amazon.com/Perfect-Chaos-Daughters-Journey-Struggle/dp/0312581823/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1343236171&sr=1-1&keywords=perfect+chaos.  I can’t begin to tell you how amazing they both are!  Again, I knew when I met Cinda and Linea that they are phenomenal ladies.  They actually took the time to listen to my story.  There we sat in a sticky, hot catering tent with the whir of an exhausted portable air conditioner in the background visiting about mental illness and it’s effects.  Their level of empathy helped me in not feeling alone as we cope with the challenges of having a loved one ourselves who lives with bipolar disorder.  For the first time I connected with a mother who “got me.”  Cinda knew just what I was talking about.  I felt a sense of empowerment as I listened to both of them.  I owe them a huge debt of gratitude because they have shown me, as well as millions of others, that it is okay to talk about mental illness, that we are not alone and that we can heal.  Thank you Cinda and Linea for empowering this Mom!  I am so very proud to say that I know you!  In addition to their book, Linea recently shared her story on the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA)  website.  I encourage you to check it out!  From the heart I thank you both!

I also had the pleasure of meeting and working with Nanci Schiman, Program Manager for The Balanced Mind Foundation formerly known as the Child Adolescent and Bipolar Foundation.  I believe that she is in this picture helping with volunteer coordination at the volunteer check-in tent.  When I think back to last summer I remember Nanci and I delivering water to the build crew.  There we were.  We had never met prior to the build, and yet we were driving around in her rental car trying to find our way around the set.  I was so comfortable with Nanci that as we bounced along the road (which wasn’t a road!  It was just an area marked off for cars to drive on!) I laughed and told her she was awesome!  Before we all knew it the time had flown, and she had to leave.  But a life changing connection was made.  I say with great pride that I am now one of Nanci’s volunteers with The Balanced Mind Foundation.  I love it!  It is the most awesome volunteer work!  And I get to pay it forward so-to-speak and help families in a similar situation to mine.  What a gift it was to meet Nanci.  Thank you Nanci!  I am so proud to know you, and thank you for the wonderful opportunity you gave me!

And…as you can tell,  I could keep going, but I’ll stop here for now.  There is no possible way that I can begin to capture in one blog post all the good that happened in Ottawa.  My hope is that maybe a spark will be lit and maybe some of you will be inspired to get involved in volunteerism if you are not already.  In my experience, it is beyond rewarding.  In time I will share more stories about our volunteer experiences and the amazing people Bill and I meet.  For now, I do want to list some other names that immediately cross my mind as I recall last summer: Jayne Rae-Altic, Keith Anderson, Janine Byrne, Ricky Canlapan, Marguerite Davis, Theresa Emerson, Ashley Erlinger, Erin Hazen, Chris Hendrix, Birgit Imkamp, Craig Layman, Shelby Norris, Emily and Kevin Smith, Robin Walker, Stephanie Williamson, Jim Watkins, Tori Wilson and Pat Winegardner.  There are so many more, and I have not forgot you!  I never will!  Thank you from the heart everyone for the volunteer experience of a lifetime!

I wish the same healthy connections and experiences for those of you reading this!  May we all continue to connect, learn and grow from one another.

Growing stronger…