Extreme Happiness: National TV Show Draws Hundreds of Volunteers; CSU Scholarships Offered

     From Focus magazine, Spring 2010 >>

By John Lester

PINE MOUNTAIN VALLEY — When word started spreading that the hit ABC show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition was coming to southwest Georgia, the ensuing excitement had Columbus State University students and staff clamoring for ways to help.

CSU quickly organized a system for volunteering and, in the end, more than 300 Columbus State University students, faculty and staff went to the build site in Pine Mountain Valley and helped out in one way or another as Tennessee-based Nationwide Homes and Palm Harbor Homes coordinated construction of a new handicapped-accessible home for Jeremy Williams, his wife, Jennifer (’95), their 8-year-old daughter, Josie, and their 6-year-old son, Jacob.

The Williams’ story is particularly compelling. Jacob was diagnosed with Spina Bifida before he was born. Then, several years after Jacob’s birth, Jeremy was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Friends encouraged Jennifer to apply to the ABC show — which builds a new house in a week for a deserving family — because the home Jeremy and Jennifer bought 13 years ago was “falling apart around them, and the home” had become too small to accommodate two disabled family members, the show reported.

With an alumnus involved and a major project under way in its backyard, Columbus State University’s involvement was a natural fit. But CSU’s generosity went beyond the gift of time from faculty, staff and students.

The CSU Foundation agreed to provide full-tuition scholarships to the two children, provided, of course, that they meet all university academic requirements when they’re old enough to enroll.

“Through the generosity of the CSU Foundation trustees, we’re presenting to Jacob and Josie full, fouryear scholarships so they can have the same experience that Jennifer had,” CSU Vice President for Business and Finance Tom Helton told the family.

With tears in her eyes and a big hug, Jennifer Williams could barely speak, saying “thank you so, so much.”

The president of Nationwide Homes, Andy Miller, said having Columbus State University as a partner in the project was a natural tie-in to their interest to become involved from the beginning.

“What we wanted was peace of mind for this family,” he said. “What better peace of mind for Jennifer and Jeremy than to have their children’s college education paid for? That’s a tremendous burden lifted, and it’s just fantastic.”

Because of the scholarship agreement, the university was designated as an official sponsor and was granted a certain number of volunteer slots during the week. An online signup form was established on the university’s Web site, and the response was overwhelming. The university had to take the site down after just one day because the show could not handle any more volunteers. One of the university’s shifts went from midnight to 6 a.m., and about 75 people signed up.

“The show had several shifts to fill in and they would call us,” said Steve Morse, CSU’s director of Logistic Services, who organized the university’s participation in the project. “We were very fortunate that, at the drop of a hat, we would send out an email and we would have an overwhelming number of volunteers willing to go. Whatever need they had, they called Columbus State.

“I was very surprised at the impact that Columbus State made, not only locally, but with ABC and with the Extreme Makeover crew.”

Each group traveled by CSU bus to the work site on Highway 116 in Harris County. Some volunteers served food, some cleaned up, some moved in furniture and some helped clean out the football locker room and offices at Greenville High School, where Jeremy Williams has been the head football coach for the last eight years.

A lot of the time, volunteers worked hard. But, this was a television show, so some of the time, they had to work for the TV producers too, such as when the volunteers ran up a hill toward the family, hollering and waving their arms. Then they had to do it again. And again. And again. And again.

“It was all a little surreal,” said Ashley Kelly, a 20-year-old sophomore education major who volunteered a couple of times on the project. “What we did the first day, it was kind of fun, but we waited hours to just run up a hill.”

The actual work was more memorable.

“It was a pretty fun experience,” Kelly said. “I really enjoyed it. At first, you think people are just there to try to be on TV, but when you get there and meet all the people involved, they just wanted to get it done for this family and in the end, oh my gosh, this family really does deserve this.”

The episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition featuring the Williams family and their new home aired on ABC as the season finale on Sunday, May 16.

     Related: More on Williams home from ABC | Tour home and see bonus scenes (scroll down) from Hulu