Wishmakers connects contractors with homeowners in need

Wishmakers connects contractors with homeowners in need

by Emily Udell

It was more than 10 years ago that Lanny Johnson began purchasing cabinets and other materials with the hope of one day updating the kitchen in his modest Sacramento-area home. However, the retired Marine began experiencing loss of eyesight and other health problems that prevented him from completing his project and other repairs.

"I lost a lot of the feeling in my fingers, and the ability to hold things," says Johnson, who suspects he may have been exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

Worried that he might never see his new kitchen, Johnson's sister nominated him for Wishmakers, a program that Angie's List started in 2004 to match contractors willing to donate their services to homeowners in need. Through Wishmakers, contractors remodeled Johnson's kitchen, as well as repaired his damaged sewer, and did some electrical wiring, bathroom remodeling and other work.

John Currier, the owner of highly rated JLC General Construction based in Roseville, Calif., says he wanted to get involved as soon as he heard about the project. "I'm a veteran myself so I said: 'Absolutely, I'd love to take care of it, say no more,'" says Currier, who spent six years in the Air Force.

He was so taken with Johnson, Currier invested his own money in granite countertops and invited him to dinner with his wife. "We just fell in love with him," Currier says.

Using his local connections, Currier amassed a crew of contractors and donated materials to update Johnson's home, including installing a sleek new kitchen. The project's total cost was $15,000.

"I wish there were more people who knew about the program, because I know there's a lot of people out there who need a wish come true," Johnson says. "It was a blessing. I'm really thankful. I hope someday I can return the favor."

The Angie's List Wishmakers Program started in 2004, when Indianapolis contractors helped a teenage girl, Adrianna Darwish, who was caring for her ailing parents. The family was in desperate need of housecleaning services.

"A little bit goes a long way," says Darwish, who is now a 21-year-old Indiana University senior applying to medical school. Her parents have since passed away, but she still remembers how much Wishmakers helped her family at the time.

"Having our house clean for once provided a lot of comfort when our lives were really chaotic," Darwish says.

Since working with the Darwish family, the program's projects included remodeling a home for an Indianapolis boy suffering from Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, or "bubble boy" disease; converting a garage to a bedroom for a Tucson, Ariz., teenager who put her college dreams on hold to help care for her cancer-afflicted father; and repairing a kitchen for a Boston-area woman who has helped raise more than 70 foster children.

In total, Wishmakers has completed 36 projects worth nearly $250,000 in services and goods, including seven this year. "The Wishmakers program has really picked up steam in 2011," says Wishmakers coordinator Angie Barnes, who works in the company's public relations department. "We almost doubled the number of completed projects this year compared to last year."

In 2011, Wishmakers projects included helping a disabled woman in Greenfield, Wisc., get much-needed repairs to her bathroom. The program also eradicated foundation and mold problems in the home of an Iraq war veteran near Grand Rapids, Mich., and fixed an air conditioner that hadn't been working for two years for an out-of-work land surveyor in Arlington, Texas.

When Barnes first came to Angie's List in 2007, it was her job to tell local media about Wishmakers' projects going on in their community. "I fell in love with the stories," says Barnes, who is sometimes fondly referred to as "The Other Angie" to distinguish her from Angie Hicks, the company's founder.

In 2008, Barnes says she "adopted" Wishmakers, becoming the sole person responsible for identifying projects and finding service providers who are willing to donate time, labor and materials to the recipients. Only companies that are highly rated on Angie's List are able to participate in the program. "Most of the times, the homeowners have enough stress - they don't need to deal with a crummy contractor on top of it," she says.

She then tries to attract local media interest in the project as a way to thank the businesses for their service. "We wouldn't have a program if it wasn't for the [generosity of the] service providers," says Barnes, stressing that none of the participating contractors are in it for the recognition.

Rich Ashton, owner of the Arlington, Texas-based Tom's Mechanical, says he's always looking for opportunities to help out in his community, and when he heard about Wishmakers, it seemed like a natural fit. "I just feel like the Dallas-Forth Worth area has been good to us and we have the obligation to give back," Ashton says.

Mojca Jackson went without air conditioning for three years in her home in Dallas, where temperatures routinely topped the century mark during the summer months. Because she couldn't afford to fix her unit, she and her two daughters withstood the heat along with the family's two pet cats.

"Sometimes I thought they were dead, with the way they were laying around," says Jackson, a single parent who makes a modest income as an esthetician and helps pay for her daughters' college educations. Jackson didn't know that cool relief was on the way until she found out one of her clients nominated her for Wishmakers and the highly rated Tom's Mechanical agreed to do the work for free.

Technicians measured the average temperature in Jackson's home at about 95 degrees before the repairs. They spent a full day at the house, replacing the indoor air handling system, repairing the fan motor in the outdoor unit and installing a programmable thermostat. "It's beautiful - I can breathe," says Jackson, effusive in expressing her gratitude. "I feel so blessed."

The repairs at Jackson's home were made possible by the outpouring of support from contractors after a call for help went out to Dallas-area heating and A/C contractors to help a couple in Arlington, Texas, who were also without air conditioning. Wishmakers facilitated the completion of three air conditioning-related projects total during a record heat-wave in Texas.

Earlier this year, contractors helped the family of Joanna Davis, a 24-year-old woman who is suffering the debilitating effects of severe Crohn's disease and colitis. The family's front walkway, which was composed of decaying brick and railroad ties, posed a hazard for Joanna, who makes frequent trips to the doctor.

"She was literally tripping and it was not safe," says Patty Davis, Joanna's mother. The highly rated RJL Enterprises demolished the family's old walk and installed a new cement walkway, with a swirled design that serves as traction. "Aesthetically it is beautiful, and it's also non-skid," Patty says. "We can't thank you people enough."

In 2011, Angie's List is also partnering with the Decorate A Vet group, which was launched in 2010 by Jeffrey Jones of the highly rated Classic Stonescaping & Gardens in Falls Church, Va. The project brings together local companies and community volunteers to beautify the yards of veterans and their families with holiday decorations, and provide landscaping and handyman services as needed.

"Our clear focus is decorating," says Jones, but he says last year his volunteers also donated services like tree-trimming, gutter repair and even the installation of a stone walkway.

Wishmakers accepts nominations year-round and always has projects that are "Wishes in the Works," or projects that are still in need of contractors to help. Widow Kristy Brooks is still waiting for assistance to fix up the two-bedroom home she shared with her three young children and her husband, Tom, before he was tragically killed during a fall down their basement steps in February.

The door to the basement swings inward over the steps, creating the safety hazard that led to Tom's death. "I'm terrified of those steps and I don't want the kids around them," says Brooks, whose mother nominated her for the Wishmakers program.

In addition to fixing the basement door and stairs, Angie's List is seeking contractors who can help update the family's outdated kitchen and replace their shower with a bathtub, so Brooks has somewhere to more easily bathe her kids. "I think it would make it feel more like a home," says Brooks, who says she's getting through this difficult period with the support of family and friends and a modest income.

Sometimes it takes as long as a year to complete a Wishmakers project, though a few are completed within days of the initial announcement. "When I can't help them as quickly as I want, that's frustrating," says Barnes, who has put a call out to contractors in the St. Louis area for help with the Brooks' repairs.

At press time, the program was also seeking help for several other projects. Contact us if you know a service provider who might be able to assist. "Whether it's a minor repair, or something bigger," Barnes says. "We do our best to help as many people as we can."

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