Back when I was in college, I had the amazing experience to do something to help change lives, be creative, and be on TV: I was on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition!
Here is the premise of the show:
Day 1: The family in need is surprised by a loud “Good morning, _____ family!” from Ty Pennington. They come outside and take Ty, the designers, and the film crew on a tour of their house and find out that they are getting a brand new house fit for their needs. They do not have any say in the process, and they are shipped off to a wonderful location for a vacation while their house is demolished and rebuilt.
Day 2: Demo Day. There is usually some big spectacular extravaganza to demolish the house. They can’t do it on Day 1, because they have to get the family and momentos out of the house and prep the house to safely get knocked down.
Day 3-6: Rebuilding with the TV design team, volunteers, contractors, and other local professionals.
Day 7: Reveal Day! This is when you have Ty and the team of onlookers shout “Move that Bus!” The bus moves, allowing the homeowner and the family to gasp and double-over in emotion. They then get to go inside the house, take a tour, and learn about their new home.
My Extreme Makeover: Home Edition Story
Day 1: “Good Morning, Crawford-Smith Family”
My story with Extreme Makeover: Home Edition starts on Day 1 of the week. It was December 2005, our junior year of college and the week of final exams for the semester. We found out on the Virginia Tech homepage that Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (now hereafter referred to as “EMHE”) had surprised a local family with a morning wakeup call. The next day, they needed as many VT students as possible to come for a big parade down the street to the family home for the demolition. Knowing that this was the ONLY show that my parents and brother watched religiously, I knew I just HAD to be on it! I emailed my co-ed service fraternity (Alpha Phi Omega), and asked if anyone wanted to do the march with me. I also called my family to tell them the news. Because I had done so well academically that semester, I could have gotten Ds on my finals and still received an A/A- in the classes, so my parents happily gave me their blessing to go get on TV!
Day 2: Demolition
Even though it was the week of finals, we were able to get a group of APO brothers to brave the cold and snow and make the march to the house. When we arrived at the meeting place, about 5 blocks from the house, we were met with our first EMHE experience: the producers. In the community theater world, you would have maybe 1 or 2 producers that are in charge of coordinating everything so that it runs well. In TV Land, however, they use the term more loosely. Basically, if you see this blue jacket with the EMHE logo on the back, you are talking to a producer. You would never predict how many there were. This producer had to give hundreds of excited students directions with how to line up. Good luck!
As we started to march, and the cameras showed up, students did what students do: they tried to get on TV. I don’t think they realized that out of all of the hours of footage, they would not include someone waving frantically to the camera in their cut. This is lesson #1 for getting on TV: act normally and not like you are at a football game saying “Hi Mom!”
There were truly hundreds of us making the march. It was incredible!
Overnight, our little town of Blacksburg had found out about the news, and all of the local shops were welcoming ABC and EMHE. This was a shop that we passed as we walked towards the house.
When we got closer to the house, we could see the bulldozers ready for demolition.
The house was a great little house, but it was really wrong for the family. The matriarch was a single mother (Carol Crawford-Smith) who was once a gifted dancer with the Dance Theatre of Harlem. She had MS and was slowly needing more help getting around her house. It was simply not laid out to be wheelchair accessible, and she couldn’t afford to make it so.
Once we arrived, we participated in the second thing I learned about reality TV: be ready to wait. After we got there, they had to invite the designers out of their warm trailer, get them situated around the volunteers and contractors, and get ready to film.
This was our first shot to see which of the designers they had selected for us. From left to right, we had Preston Sharp, Paul DiMeo, Daniel Kucan (a new designer), and Paige Hemmis. We found out later that they typically traded off between Paige Hemmis and Constance Ramos, but there had recently been a disagreement, and Constance was not involved on the show anymore. I was thrilled we got Paige for this episode, because I love her signature pink!
We then learned about Rule #3 when it comes to reality TV: learn who you need to know. I quickly picked up on the fact that blue windbreakers and gray hats = producers. Producers = be nice to them. Be nice to them = you get special privileges (You’ll see what I mean later in my story.). This was Eric, one of the producers that was hanging around during the set up and this early stage of filming. He was near us, so I struck up a conversation with him about what was going on. He was happy to talk to an interested group of people, so he told us about what had happened so far and what we needed to do if we wanted to volunteer later on in the week. His advice was perfect, and it gave me the confidence to actually get more work/volunteer hours throughout the week.
Finally, everything was set up for the filming to resume. Ty started waving one of the flag girls’ flags (everyone loves how goofy he could be- look at his hat!), and he did what Ty does: got the crowd excited.
Then, after they filmed him talking to the crowd, he went crowd surfing.
This was essentially the end of filming for this segment, so we were free to go. Most of the other designers quickly went back to their trailer to warm up, but Paul stayed out for a little while to talk to those of us that were hanging around. I was so excited to chat with him and get this picture.
We had to leave, because they didn’t want any of us there for the demolition. I had a final the next day, so I went home to study.
Day 3: Starting to Build
Unfortunately, I did not show up to the set this day, so I don’t have any pictures or stories to tell. We did find out, however, that the architecture school had a special project to incorporate their award-winning solar house into a part of the final home.
Day 4: Building
Day 4 arrived, I was done with all but 1 of my finals, and I was ready to go back and volunteer! I arrived to the volunteer tent, where I signed in. I told them my construction experience (despite being a small-sized girl, I had been helping to build sets for my theater productions for years), signed a waiver, and sat down to wait. Occasionally, another producer would call down on a walkie-talkie to say that they needed this or that number of people to do XYZ. The producer in the tent would then point and say, “You, you, and you… Here’s a hardhat and a shirt. Put it on and go down to this person and do this-or-that.” Finally, it was my chance! I was told to go down and bring coffee and snacks to the construction workers. Not the most glamorous job, but it got me “on set!” Rule #4: be willing to take even the most basic of jobs, because you never know where that will lead. Do it with a smile on your face.
As I was walking the 3 blocks to get closer, I got my first glimpse of the new construction. I was amazed with how fast the house had gone up in the 48 hours I had been gone.
I worked for about an hour and a half to deliver coffee and snacks to the other workers. This was great, because it gave me access to the food tent, and I could wander freely to find if anyone needed anything. Of course, to be the one to bring someone something to eat and a beverage to warm up was a good thing for me.
Eventually, I realized that no one really needed anything else, but I didn’t want to have to leave just because my job was finished. So, I just stayed. I found a producer and asked if I could help pick up some of the trash. He was fine with it, so that’s what I did. I still wasn’t allowed to go inside the house (none of the volunteers were), because it was still quite the construction zone. But I got really close. At this time, it was turning to night, and I was able to snap this picture with a Cheryl, one of my APO brothers.
Picking up trash got me better access to the house and the views around it. Notice the building in the back? That is the project from the architecture school. You’ll see more about it later.
I went home eventually (begrudgingly, because I really could have just stayed as long as I wanted, since I now had the coveted hard hat and shirt). I turned in the hat, but I kept the shirt. I wasn’t giving that baby up, after I waited so long for it.
Day 5: Building
The next day, I went back to the volunteer tent, and there was an even longer line ahead of me. I still had my shirt, so instead of waiting, I bypassed the line completely and walked right onto the set like I knew what I was doing. It worked! No one questioned me. I found a producer and let them know that I needed a hard hat so I could pick up trash like I did yesterday. No questions from them (again, I acted like I was told to do this), and they got me the hat and a bag, and I started cleaning up again. This brings me to Rule #5: Act like you know what you are doing.
At this time, I was also able to get inside some of the designing tents. This one was in the early planning stages for one of the boys’ rooms, the “bike room.”
We were finally allowed to get inside the house and do some actual work. This is where the real fun begins! I was still picking up trash at this point, but I was able to quickly segway into some actual work. My first chance was in the master bathroom.
This is an interesting tidbit of behind-the-scenes info. Weeks before construction and filming begins, EMHE contacts local contractors and construction workers to participate and volunteer their hours. They will have to work all hours of the night, and the businesses themselves are unpaid. Their payment comes from free publicity and the ability for a tax write-off. I learned this from two unhappy tile men, who were having to donate their time. This was actually quite shocking to me. We all knew about Carol’s diagnosis and her family’s situation, and I was there to help her out and be a part of an amazing experience. They viewed it very negatively, however, because they were having to work hard unpaid. It was the first time that the shine of this amazingly-run TV show started to wear off. Maybe it wasn’t a perfect machine, after all. I shrugged it off, as I was still thrilled to be a part of it.
While continuing to talk to these guys, I asked if I could lay a section or two of tile. They looked at me with a quizzical look on their faces, as they knew I had never laid tile before in my life. They were right, but I had watched countless hours of TLC’s Trading Spaces and HGTV, so I felt like I could do it perfectly. Eventually they shrugged because they needed a break, and I got my chance! I was able to snap this quick pic:
I thanked them, picked up my trash bag, and went to another room. Here, I had more luck! This was eventually going to be the bike room, and I lucked into being told by a producer to pick up a brush and start painting. Finally! I was officially given some direction, and I was no longer “sneaking” around. I was officially a worker now!
This is when I got really lucky. The room that I was in was the “bike room” that I saw some designs for earlier. This was actually Paul DiMeo’s room. While we were painting, he actually came into the room to check it out briefly. Of course, I got a picture with him!
Once our work was finished in there, I moved on to the other rooms. With paint and dust on my shirt, I looked like a worker, and so no one second-guessed my being there. We ran into the newest designer Daniel Kucan in the front hallway.
I then took some downtime to look around. I went out to the solar house where they were building a rock wall for meditation for Carol.
I was also able to go back to some of the design tents to see some plans. This was for the other son’s room. He was really interested in science, so he had a chemistry-themed room. In this tent, they needed help painting some large round discs black that were going to be used as slides that would be attached to the wall. My hands got covered in paint, so I was unable to take a picture.I went back to the master bath to see how my friends were doing. They had put the grout in, and they were just washing it off now. They were more than happy to see me again and quickly let me take over, instructing me that I needed to use elbow grease. Once I put my hand in the bucket of water, I could instantly see why they were so happy to let me take over. That water was frigid!
Day 6: Building and Finishing Rooms
This was an incredibly long day, and perhaps the most exciting day of all. When I arrived on set (completely skipping the line and walking with my shirt and hardhat on), I went to snap some pictures of the improvements. This was the boys’ bathroom:
The hallway separates the kitchen and living area to the bedrooms. It was a nice, wide hallway, that could later accomodate a wheelchair when it was needed. It also had these beautiful cabinets on the other side to house all of the extra kitchen supplies and other storage.
On Day 6, Tim was able to get away from his studying and final projects to help with some master bedroom/bathroom touch ups. Although we didn’t get a chance to work together, we were able to squeeze in a quick kiss and this picture.
After looking around a bit, I went into the “bike room” bedroom that I painted the night before. In it was Paul DiMeo (!!!) with one other volunteer. He invited me in and told me that he needed us to put together this two-tone rubber mat floor in a pattern. He then left. We got to work right away, and came up with a pretty neat pattern.
Paul came back just as we were finishing. He liked what we came up with, but he changed his mind, and asked us to just stick to one color and put the mats together. Oh well, there went our creative design. That’s okay, though. How many people get to talk directly to Paul?
When he came back in the room this time, he also brought a camera and producer with him. The producer ushered us out of the shot, had Paul lean down and put a couple of the mats in place, say a few words, and then the camera went away. Paul was great, though. He actually stayed for a little while to continue placing and rearranging the mats with us, chatting a bit as we worked.
Here were the two creative volunteers when we were finished:
And the plain mat when we were finished:
It was at this point that I realized that for as many hours as I had been on site, I had only seen glimpses of the designers. They would quickly enter with a camera, film a bit to show that they were “working,” and then leave as quickly as they had come in. Paul was the only exception. He was wonderful to actually stay and work. It was during this day that I realized that the designers really did very little “designing” of the spaces. Most of it was completed prior to the week of filming, and they were more TV personalities. Again, some of the shine was wearing off of the magic of the show. Still, amazing experience, and no complaints here!
As I was working, I noticed a familiar face from a previous episode. It was the builder from the “Novak” episode. He had a special scene where they were running around looking for the keys, and he had them. I took this picture for my mom, since this episode had recently aired:
As I continued working from one room to another, we would have some down time in between jobs. I was able to get a hotdog dinner in the food tent and snap some late-night pictures.
When they poured the concrete for the driveway, it was a source of stress, because no one was allowed to enter or exit from the front, we all had to walk around the entire house to get in and keep working.
At about 11:30 PM, we were told that we HAD to leave the house because they had to film a crucial scene. The premise was that the designers needed to bring in all of the furniture, but they couldn’t lift it all. Then, all of a sudden, the VT football team comes rushing in to save the day and do the heavy lifting! In reality, they came in to film, carried a couple of items, and then left. We volunteers got the rest of the furniture in and settled.
As we were carrying in furniture, I snapped this quick picture from the science bedroom of a microscope slide mural, still unfinished.
This was the custom bed for the bike room, still not totally assembled yet.
At about 2:00, I collapsed on the floor for a short nap.
At about 3:00 AM, I realized that I needed to get home for a couple of hours of sleep, a shower (I stunk!), and a change of clothes.
Day 7: Reveal Day
After just a two-and-a-half hour nap, I got ready and headed back to the site. It was Reveal Day, and we were nowhere close to having the house ready.
I went inside and immediately saw the designers in every room. I started in the living room, where Daniel Kucan was sorting through paintings with a couple of volunteers. He had noticed me from earlier on site, and he asked if I would pick out the pictures from his collection to go on either side of the window for the dining room. It felt great to have some responsibility!
The final picture of the dining room from ABC.com. See those pictures on either side of the window? I picked those out!
He liked my work and then asked for my advice for the other paintings in the living room. We talked about the choices, and then figured it out. At this point, I had earned my stripes, and he pointed me to the curio cabinets and a huge stack of items. He told me that he needed me to arrange the items to look presentable. He wanted a lived-in look but still put-together.
The final picture from ABC.com. I wish I had a better picture of the insides of them, but it is still wonderful to have my “design work” on film!
I also was able to help arrange some of the dishes in the hallway cabinets. I still don’t know why they picked out orange and blue dishes, considering we were in Hokie territory, and one of the boys was a die-hard Hokie fan. Oh well. I’m sure they had a reason.
Before we were forced to go outside, I got a couple of other pictures of the rooms:
Then, I was in the right place at the right time. A producer gave me a broom and told me to sweep the dust out of the house. Not a few moments afterwards, Paige came through telling us to hurry because the family was almost there. Guess what? This made it in to the final cut! While there were a few other times throughout my working that I was in the right place at the right time and there was a camera crew, everything else was cut out. This, however, was the lucky moment for me!
Once the house was cleaned up and ready to go, we were ushered outside. Directly across the house were hundreds of people waiting to see the family.
The main builders were in the blue jackets right in the front. The volunteers were taken to a section across the street (on the same side as the house) and off to the side a little bit.
Then we waited. And waited. And waited. At this point, I realized that I hadn’t seen Ty at all during the filming after the march down the street on Demo Day. I did see him that morning, however. As we were waiting, I was able to talk to some of the other volunteers, and I found out that the day after demo, Ty went over to another filming site to either start or finish another episode’s taping. They staggered the taping so they could essentially fit in 2 episodes into a week-and-a-half time slot. So he was at our site on Day 1-2, at the other site on our Day 3-5, and back to us on Day 6-7. When he was on the other site (our Day 3-5), it was either the beginning of the taping (surprise) or the end of the episode (reveal). What a busy guy! I also found out that during the time that he was here, he was actually at a different site for his Secret Project. With how un-secretive the entire site was during filming, I was amazed that no one spilled the beans on the Secret Project: a rebuilt and handicap-accessible dance studio space to renew the current space that Carol had occupied for her business.
Then, “that bus” (from “Move that bus!”) arrived and put itself into position! Finally! The big reveal would happen! Not so fast, though.
Remember Rule #2? Wait? Yep! You have to do that for just a little longer. While we were waiting, Coleman Collins, one of the VT basketball players that had come back to volunteer that morning starting singing a Christmas carol. Just like in Elf when Jovi starts singing, we all started in on the carols. One song led to the next, and there were several of us just overwhelmed with emotion (and exhaustion) with tears in our eyes at the beauty of the whole situation.
Eventually, the limo came slooooooowly down the street.
Carol and her two sons got out of the car and were met by Ty. They talked for what seemed like ages. Suddenly, someone started shouting “Move that bus! Move that bus!” and the whole crowd got in on the cheer.
Eventually the bus moved! Immediately the family was surrounded by the cameras, designers, and Ty. Carol and her sons were amazed with their new house.
They talked for about 5 minutes. Then, the family started the walk up towards their new home with Ty.
Carol seemed to be having trouble walking to the walkway, so Preston ran up to her and picked her up in his arms.
He stopped, and she leaned back to give a wave to the crowd.
Then, I was able to get one last picture of them before they disappeared into the house. We knew once they went inside, the experience was over.
The designers were still outside, so I went and found Daniel and thanked him so much for trusting me with the details in the living room. He told me how pleased he was with the work I had did and thanked me for it. One more picture before I left:
And the experience was over. After hours upon hours, freezing cold, bitter wind, and pure exhaustion, it was hard to believe that it was all over.
Now we just had to wait for the premier!
We were able to get tickets to the premier at Burris Hall, where we got a chance to actually meet Carol. One of my students from my internship was her goddaughter, so I was able to get an “in” to the VIP area.
The premier was in the Burris auditorium. It was incredible to be surrounded by the volunteers, construction crews, and her loved ones.
I met up with Mindy, a friend I had met during the filming.
Our president, Charles Steger, said a few words, and Carol gave a wave. Then, when it was airing live on national TV, we got to see it in movie-theater style.
Lessons Learned from Reality TV:
1. Don’t wave to your mom and dad to try to be on camera. They will cut you out. Instead, just act normally and
2. Be ready to wait. And wait. And wait. Patience is essential, and having a good attitude about it will be very helpful.
3. Find out and memorize who is who. Know who the producers are. Be nice to them. Be helpful and have a good attitude. Know who you have to impress, but don’t take it too far. Make your presence known, but not obnoxiously so.
4. Don’t be afraid to take an unglamorous job (such as serving coffee and snacks).
5. When in doubt, act like you know what you are doing. If you seem like you should be there, no one will question you. When you act shifty or unsure, they will ask you to leave.