A HARD-HIT FAMILY GETS A HELPING HAND
A school club gives a girl and her grandmother the home they deserve

Jerlene Lane hasn't caught many breaks in her 70 years. Four of her 12 children were stillborn. Her husband, Cleostia Davis, died in 2002 after a lifetime's work in Florida's sugar cane fields. In 1997, Lane took in her granddaughter, Keturah Davis, after the girl's mother died and her father was convicted of manslaughter and jailed for 33 years. Lane supports Keturah, now 8, on $1,500 monthly in Social Security and death benefits—about half of which pays the mortgage on her Riviera Beach, Fla., home. The small stucco house was in disrepair. Cabinets dangled off hinges, holes pocked the kitchen floor and the 1970s-vintage appliances barely worked. Furniture was torn, and flaking walls hadn't seen fresh paint in 30 years.

"It hasn't looked very good in quite a while," Lane admits. Things were bound to get only worse—until the Dad's Club of Lighthouse Elementary School, where Keturah is a second-grader, stepped in. Aware of the family's struggles, members of the 100-man group dropped off a turkey last Thanksgiving. What they saw that day made an impression. "We were so taken with the direness of their situation," says Dad's Clubber Cooper Getschal, 52. "Mrs. Lane is a wonderful woman, but she really doesn't have the energy to do everything that needs to be done."

Getschal resolved to do it for her. Along with dozens of volunteers, he reinvented Lane's home. They painted, pooled money for a stove and donated a fridge, washer, couch, chairs and tables. Keturah pitched in too—as a crew did over her room in pink, she cleaned paint off the floor. "It's fun helping out!" she said, while rescuing her treasured Barbie clock and a few other items workers had accidentally tossed.

As for Lane, she was simply overwhelmed. "You see this on TV, but you never think it will happen to you," she says. "I'm just amazed."

A FAILING BODY, BUT HE'S ALL HEART
Stricken with Lou Gehrig's disease, Bo Busby builds a better life for a fellow sufferer

Bo Busby was intrigued last October when his wife, Kerri, told him about a mom she'd met at their daughter's Austin, Texas, gym. Her name was Linda Rank and her husband, Joe, suffered from ALS, the neurodegenerative illness known as Lou Gehrig's disease. The affliction had forced him to leave his job as a software engineer; now he could barely speak. Supporting the family of six on her teacher's salary, Linda knew Joe would need a wheelchair, but worried about the cost of making their home wheelchair accessible. "I felt I was caught in a riptide that kept trying to pull me out to sea," says Linda, 41, mother of Cole, 11, Hannah, 8, and twins Ryan and Patrick, 5.

Without even meeting the Ranks, Bo, 38, a real estate developer, hatched a plan that would transform the family's lives. Over the next two months he raised $50,000 in donations and enlisted 150 volunteers who completely remade the Ranks' home. What makes the feat all the more remarkable is that in 2002 Bo himself was diagnosed with ALS, which has robbed him of most of the use of his left arm and weakened his leg muscles. "I knew what the Ranks were going through," he says. "I could empathize."

Busby—who has daughters Maddi, 8, and Abbi, 5, with Kerri, 36, a home-maker—first noticed tremors in his left hand in the spring of 2000. After the ALS diagnosis, Kerri suggested God might have a larger purpose for him. "He looked at me," she says, "and said, 'Just let me be angry about this right now, okay?' " He continued full days at the office, frustrated by his waning energy and coordination. Then he found a therapeutic outlet: the Ranks' house. "This project took the focus off me, at least internally," says Busby, "and put it on someone else."

Though he had met Joe for only one brief encounter, Busby was determined to help him—and soon. "With ALS, time is a precious commodity," he says. (On average, patients survive two to five years after diagnosis.) He had his brother-in-law Sean Cockrell, a contractor, talk to the Ranks about their wish list, then e-mailed 200 friends and relatives about Rank's plight. Others spread the word and some $40,000 rolled in by mid-December. Retailers, electricians and plumbers offered materials, services and appliances at reduced prices. The Busbys arranged for the Ranks to spend the week at a friend's resort cabin. Then, starting Dec. 17, they worked frenzied 16-hour days. "Bo was exhausted," says Cockrell, "yet he'd say, I can't imagine spending my time doing anything else.' "

Returning home Dec. 23, the Ranks were shocked and delighted to see the results: a larger kitchen fitted with new cabinets, French doors leading to a brand new deck, new paint, new furniture and appliances—and all of it accessible by wheelchair. "I felt humbled, undeserving and supremely lucky," Joe Rank, 39, says, communicating by typing. "It was like they'd all helped me to bear this cross for a few steps." Busby says the project changed his perspective on coping with his disease. Recently he told his new friend Joe, "You are not alone. You never have been alone, and you never will be alone."

HER NEW KENTUCKY HOME
Louisville locals transform a blind woman's fixer-upper

Divorced, childless and blind since birth, June Jackson longed for a piece of the American dream: to own a home. Nothing fancy—she couldn't afford that on her salary as a police transcriber—just a little place with a yard for Ostrum, her Lab guide dog, and Nora, her golden retriever. In the fall of 2002, Jackson, 53, found an $84,500, l,005-sq.-ft. house in a historic area of Louisville. Even though she was told it had minor problems, Jackson admits she naively neglected to consult an attorney or a building inspector—or even have a sighted friend look the house over; her brother Billy had planned to make a visit but couldn't coordinate schedules with the sellers. It wasn't until after she moved in that he cased the place—and found himself in a disaster area: The furnace was broken, and the tub rested on tiles set in dirt. The exterior was a patchwork—blue siding in front, yellow on one side, gray on the other. (The seller disputes that the house was in such bad condition, claiming he put in a new roof, carpeting and heating system.)

Jackson put up with it for nearly 18 months before pouring out her problems to her boss, police Lt. Lynn Hunt. Appalled, Hunt contacted Charla Young of local station WAVE-TV3, who did a story on Jackson's plight; Young also asked local builder Herb Toler to look at the place. "It was a horror," says Toler, 58. "The chimney was falling in and water and termite damage had eaten away the whole back of the house." Toler enlisted designer Milton R. Haskins Jr., who suggested leveling the house. But its vintage made it a protected structure, "so we said, 'Let's see if we can fix this,' " says Haskins, 38. "Herb pulled me aside and said, 'There's no money here.' I told him we'd do it for free."

Within a week, his firm made plans to demolish 75 percent of the house and build a 712-sq.-ft. addition. WAVE broadcast live as Jackson swung the ceremonial sledgehammer to start the project. The publicity drew offers from as far away as Scotland, asking how to donate time and materials.

"We had volunteer firefighters coming on off days to put up siding," says Toler. "Boy Scouts helping with cleanup." Jackson stayed with friends during a four-month renovation that would otherwise have cost $90,000. Then, last Nov. 19, she came home to new wiring, plumbing, insulation, heating, air conditioning, drywall, carpet, tile, paint, appliances, a voice-activated thermostat and a security system that announces when someone enters the house. "There's no way I can totally visually imagine it," Jackson says, stroking Ostrum. "But I know it's beautiful."

By Richard Jerome and Thomas Fields-Meyer. Kate Klise in Louisville, Anne Lang in Austin and Lori Rozsa in Riviera Beach

  • Contributors:
  • Kate Klise,
  • Anne Lang,
  • Lori Rozsa.