A small business community here is buzzing over how it managed to turn a divisive catchphrase — build a wall — into a plotline so universally appealing it could fit into a Hallmark Channel script.
Start with two high school study-hall classmates who share the exact same birthday, exactly one year apart. They reunite on Facebook 12 years after graduation. By then, after having joined the military, he has gone blind from a service-connected injury; she, on the other hand, will survive two future bouts with cancer. The two hit it off, they get married and, in 2016, they and their two sons move from Ohio to Florida. But …
The home is a bad fit. They want out, but they’re underwater. And their stamina is as exhausted as their finances.
Then along comes a retired real estate attorney named Robert Goldman. And a licensed moving company entrepreneur named Lynn Colett. And a local third-generation builder named Michael Bishop. Plus assists from nine other contractors and businesses. And the United Way of South Sarasota County.
And next thing you know, they’re all sitting together in a living room with a service dog named Brutus. And some of them aren’t even pretending to fight back their tears. “And then Lynn comes and meets with us, and it was like the second or third cry, I can’t even count anymore,” says former Navy corpsman Alan Adams as he retells the story, “and she says I’ve got Michael Bishop coming …”
And so it goes, inside an ordinary looking house on an ordinary looking street, where the term “divine intervention” frequently punctuates the chatter.
This tale begins on the tail-end of the 20th century, when Alan, now 37, and Alexis, 36, are casual high school acquaintances in Newton Falls, Ohio. They don’t really have a thing, and they go their separate ways. Alan joins the Peace Corps, attends Youngstown State, and joins the Navy.
During a stateside urban warfare exercise prior to deployment in Afghanistan, “something went boom,” recalls Alan, “and I got some kind of chemical in my eye. At first, it felt like I had an eyelash in my contact lens.”
He never found out exactly what chemical agent tagged him, but the damage was neurological, and it spread to both eyes. Functionally blind, Alan is now “more than 100 percent disabled,” and his condition is exacerbated by Ohio’s frigid winters, which trigger vertigo and anxiety and sometimes confine him to a wheelchair.
He and Alexis, a personal trainer, rediscover each other on social media. Their bonds will be tested twice by cancer, but they will emerge much stronger.
During a Christmas visit to Venice in 2017, the warm weather works like a balm on Alan, and they decide to start house-hunting. Trusting photos and details provided by their real estate agent, they purchase their current residence sight unseen, and complete the move in May 2018. They realize their mistake immediately.
There are no sidewalks, as promised. A community swimming pool, which was supposed to be within walking distance, is a mile away near a busy thoroughfare. And the layout of the house is weird. Sliding-glass doors with raised rails separate an open master bedroom from the living room. There is no privacy; the master bedroom shares a wall with the kids’ rooms.
They also learn that the roof, assured of having another five to seven years of life, actually has about five months of viability, and “we’d be swimming if another storm came,” says Alexis. So they needed to install a new roof if they had any hopes of selling the place.
Resigned to moving out, renting, and taking a huge loss, the Adams family — having few local connections — heard through a friend they trusted about a Venice realtor named Robert Goldman, who worked with Michael Saunders & Co. The couple met him at an open house showing in December. Goldman was moved by their story and invited them into his own home to get a needs assessment.
“It kind of pissed me off that they wound up buying this house,” Goldman says. “They paid 228 (thousand) for it, they put on a roof for another 10 to 12, so they’re into it for more than 240 including soft costs or acquisition costs, and they have a VA loan for 225. Also consider the market has stabilized, a brokerage commission is going to be another 6 percent, and they’re looking at a sizeable loss.”
But the first fragment of kismet had already dropped. The open house where they initially met Goldman was an ideal fit. For Alan, the clincher was the shower. It had a circular, no-door walk-in layout, complete with handrail and a bench for sitting in the event of headspins. Furthermore, it belonged to an elderly couple, whose ailing husband was a Korean War veteran.
Goldman had resettled the geriatrics into a smaller and more manageable space. Upon hearing of the Adams’ plight, owner Betty Hackmeister, newly widowed, agreed to drop her asking price to a level that would allow the family to qualify for a new loan. Recalls Goldman, “She said, immediately, ‘Bob would’ve wanted them to have the house.'” She took if off the market.
But they needed to sell their own home first. Although the place was neat and tidy, prospects kept balking over the interior sliding glass doors and the master bedroom. It had once been an outdoor space. Now, in order to reach the barbecue outside, you’d have to walk through the bedroom to get to the grill. So yet another fix was in order.
Lynn Colett, owner of An Organized Move in Venice, read an article about the Adams’ plight and contacted Goldman. Remediation was also part of her business. Maybe the house just needed to show better. Goldman invited Colett to take a look.
“I came over thinking I was just going to have to move some things around and fluff some pillows and stage it up and make it look prettier,” Colett recalls. “But when they showed me the master bedroom and it had this slider, I said well, this doesn’t work.”
Colett went to the Venice Chamber of Commerce. “I started talking to the girls in back and I said listen, I need help,” she says. “I said I need to help this family and build a wall, but we can’t spend any money. It needs to be volunteer. I mean, it’s a big undertaking for a family with their means, but on another scale it’s such a little thing that’s holding them back from living their best life.”
The Chamber referred Collet to a list of local resources. The first to call her back was Mike Bishop of Bishop Construction Services in Venice. One Tuesday morning in April, Bishop, Collet and Goldman convened at the Adams house. Bishop took one look and knew what had to be done — and expeditiously, to get the place on the market ASAP. Typically, he says, it’ll take anywhere from six to eight weeks to cut through all the red tape.
“Michael called me Tuesday afternoon and asked if he could start on Wednesday morning,” says Goldman. “I said wait a minute, you’ve got to get the permit first, right? He says, ‘I’ve got it.’ I’m like, there’s no way. It was just such a shock.”
Bishop called in more favors. He obtained donated paint from Sherwin Williams, lumber from Lowe’s, wiring supplies from CED Venice, electrical contractors from Saputo & Associates, framing assistance from Monville Engineering, interior French doors from Kimal Lumber, tile from Mongomery’s CarpetPlus, painters from Kranenburg Painting, and another assist from Warren Ziemke Drywall.
“One I told the story about what needed to be done, everybody I called said no problem, we’ll move schedules, just tell us when we need to start,” Bishop says.
All told, counting permits, code compliance, smoke and carbon detector upgrades, labor, material — Bishop estimates the entire job would’ve cost the Adams family $15,000. “Especially given where the market is now,” Bishop says, “because construction is getting slammed.” The entire wall project took two weeks, start to finish. Also waving their traditional fees were Goldman and Collet.
Goldman has since found a buyer for the new improved domicile. The Adamses expect to close the deal and move into their new digs by early July. There isn’t a dry eye in the living room as the main collaborators discuss what happened here this spring. The Adams family intends to convert their GoFundMe account, https://www.gofundme.com/f/adams-family-short-sale-fund, as well as unused funds from their United Way account, http://uwssc.org/ into an annual fundraiser for veterans needing housing assistance.
“We have this really wonderful family here,” says Collet, with a wipe of the eye. “It’s not about whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, and it’s kind of funny that we wound up building a wall together. Because what we’re doing is building a community and helping each other.”
© 2019 Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla.
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