To Help a Family in Need
Construction Students Buoyed by ‘Extreme Makeover’ Experience

- by Tom Wilson, writer/editor-One College Avenue.
Photos courtesy of Penn College Construction Association, except as credited.
Video by Chris Leigh

The glory of real-world experience and the glare of reality television intersected for a group of Pennsylvania College of Technology students and their mentors who traveled to Franklin County for an “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” construction project to benefit a family dedicated to helping special-needs youngsters.

Helpful hands – mainly from the college’s School of Construction and Design Technologies – worked Nov. 11-12 on a new house for Matthew and Blasia Drumm and their three children in South Mountain, a southcentral Pennsylvania community near the Maryland border.

I think you could characterize it as ’organized chaos' – a swarm of blue shirts as you stood back and watched the work unfold.
Penn College's volunteer crew pauses for a group photo at the site of an 'Extreme Makeover Home Edition' construction project. Photo by Chris Leigh.

The group was invited by Dan Ryan Builders, of Frederick, Md., which employs a number of Penn College graduates and has provided internships to current students over the past three summers. Alumni helped recruit volunteers through the Penn College Construction Association, which rounded up 17 students in addition to Garret Graff and Bernard A. “Barney” Kahn, instructors of building construction technology and club advisers, and Marc E. Bridgens, interim dean of construction and design technologies.

Chosen as exemplifying this season’s theme of “Heroes in the Community,” the Drumms have two autistic sons and a history of helping disabled youngsters in the Little League Baseball Challenger Division and through Blasia Drumm’s work as a teacher’s aide. Their dilapidated residence, built on a former dump site that still was marked by broken glass and shards of metal, was termed “the worst home I’ve ever seen” by one of the show’s designers.

ABC’s hit series has the uncanny power to wring tears from even the most jaded television viewers when the bullhorned cry of “Move that bus” heralds the official “reveal” – the homeowners’ heart-tugging introduction to a home that miraculously has risen from the footprint of what they left a mere week earlier.

Students lent a hand wherever one was needed on the Drumm property, including adding landscaping to the home's exterior.

“It was just awesome to see what they did in such a short amount of time,” said Seth L. Culbert, a residential construction technology and management major from Quakake. “The scheduling and logistics that took place were amazing. It was an awesome opportunity to help out in the community and spread the college’s name a little bit. To see what the family was living in, and then seeing what they were being given, was great.”

Vice president of the PCCA and organizer of the trip, Culbert interned with Dan Ryan last summer. He learned of the “Extreme Makeover” project from one of the firm’s employees – Penn College graduate Matthew S. Divok – and brought the idea to the student chapter.

“I was completely overwhelmed when I first asked the club (and) so many of them wanted to volunteer,” he said of the enthusiastic feedback, even when students initially were told they’d be paying their own way.

“I was pleased with members, as well,” said Andrew A. DeGregorio, a building construction technology major from White Plains, N.Y., and club president. “So many of them, when they were first approached with this event, were willing to help. Originally, we planned on staying with friends, renting our own vans and paying for fuel, and everyone agreed to split the cost.”

Penn College, which strongly encourages community-service work among its students, employees and alumni, absorbed the costs of a coach bus and overnight lodging.

“We all greatly appreciated this and were happy to see the school get involved,” DeGregorio said. “I would definitely do it again. It is a great way to help others and a great experience.”

Graff said it was heartening to have so many student volunteers and “extremely exciting” to see 100 or more workers at the job site.

“I think you could characterize it as ‘organized chaos’ – a swarm of blue shirts as you stood back and watched the work unfold,” he said. “Our students gave a hand wherever they needed help, from laying sod, sanding drywall and even stacking firewood. I'm proud to see the hard work the Penn College students did.”

The students were scheduled to work from 2 to 10 p.m. both evenings, but were asked to come in at 6 a.m. the second day for what turned into a double shift on the 2,500-square-foot home.

“The entire time we were down there, no one complained about how much work we were doing or the shifts that we worked,” Culbert said. “Everyone found something constructive to do. I was very proud to say that I was with Penn College.”

Steven R. Brannan, of Warminster, said he declined an earlier offer to help an “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” work crew near his suburban Philadelphia hometown when the project coincided with his Fall 2005 enrollment at Penn College.

“When Seth told me that we might have the opportunity to help out Dan Ryan Builders with a home, I thought to myself, ‘There is no way I am letting this slide by me again,’” said Brannan, who expected to receive a bachelor’s degree in residential construction management in May.

Other students on the Penn College crew and their majors were:

The show was broadcast Jan. 18, but the college work crew didn’t have to wait until then for its reviews.

“Your students worked so hard doing whatever was asked of them,” Dan Ryan said. “From carrying lumber to different locations on the job site, to raking leaves, they were pitching in. I think it was a great experience for all of us.” And an experience that affirmed what Ryan already knew from hiring Penn College graduates and interns.

“We think the world of you guys,” he said. “They get a hands-on feel for what this business is all about, and we get smart, young kids who want to make a difference.”

Brannan, a self-described fan of the show since its debut, scarcely could conceal his pride when discussing the “difference” that he helped bring about for the Drumms.

“It was amazing to see a home get built in five days when it usually takes somewhere around 80 or so,” he said. “To see the teamwork they had there … was great – so many people working together. After the skills, tips and tricks I have learned from this program, I would love to get this opportunity again – only next time, be part of the management team.”

Brannan said the show has given him a number of ideas he would like to practice in his post-graduate, home-construction career. His ultimate lesson, however, is timeless:

“Just remember,” he said, “to help a family in need goes a good, long way.” ■