Sunday, May 10, 2009

Extreme Home Makeover Provides Home for Gulf War Veterans with Gulf War Illness, MS

By Rebecca Bunch
The Chowan Herald

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Cooking and cleaning may not be most men’s idea of a good time, but they fill Jeff Cooper’s heart with joy.

Cooper, whose family is settling into their ‘Extreme Makeover’ house completed just weeks ago, said he loves spending time in the kitchen, now that he can.

He explained that he used to get a lot of pleasure from cooking and helping with the housework, especially baking cakes for his wife, Clara. But that’s difficult to do when you’ve ended up in a wheelchair in a kitchen that’s not handicapped accessible.

“The first night we were here, after the house was finished, Clara woke up and found me in the kitchen just checking everything out,” Cooper said. “I guess it was about 3:30 in the morning. I was just so excited about getting back in there again that I couldn’t sleep.”

Comfortable surroundings

Clara said amenities like a double-dishwasher have enabled Jeff to start cooking and cleaning up the kitchen again, “and I’m happy about that.”

She said that once her husband, a Desert Storm veteran who suffers from Gulf War Syndrome and multiple sclerosis, was in a wheelchair, using the kitchen became very difficult.

“Jeff doesn’t have very good trunk balance,” she said, “and he could easily have fallen trying to put dishes in a single, big dishwasher but two smaller ones are perfect for him.”

In fact, the whole house is designed to make life easier for Jeff. One of Jeff’s other favorite things about the house are the stable-style interior doors that slide rather than having to be pushed open and shut, “because he can handle them by himself,” Clara said.

And the bathroom, too, is handicapped accessible making it easier for Jeff to enjoy soaking in the tub.

For a man who readily admits that in their old home, he often felt like a burden to his wife, life is good.

Best bedroom

Clara said that her favorite rooms are the master bedroom and adjoining bathroom.

“I could live in these two rooms and never come out,” she said with a big smile as she showed one of a steady stream of visitors around during an open house the family held this week. And that’s just what Jeff was hoping for after his family was selected from among five in the area to receive a new home.

“The one room in the house I asked for was for my wife,” he said, tearing up. “She’s the first one up every morning, and the last to bed every night. She takes care of my children, and she takes care of me.”

“I told Ty Pennington, ‘if you can give my wife a nice place to rest, a tub to soak in, something like a 5-star hotel room to rest in, that’s all I want.’ And he met that challenge.”

Meeting Powell

Once they knew they had been selected, the Cooper family, accompanied by Jeff’s devoted dog, Gabby — a 4-year-old Jack Russell terrier/Chihuahua mix who is specially trained to detect seizures and muscle spasms in humans — headed off for a visit arranged by the ‘Makeover’ show to Washington, D.C., a fitting trip for a man who had been honored as North Carolina Veteran of the Year in 2003.

And while they were there, Cooper said, he didn’t worry about what was happening back at home.

He said from watching the show in the past, he had faith that everything would turn out all right.

While there, Cooper had the chance to meet one of his personal heroes, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell.

“If I hadn’t gotten to do one other thing besides meet him,” Jeff said, “that would have enough for me.”

More surprises

But a bigger surprise lay ahead.

As they neared their driveway on the trip home, he said, that was “a very special moment” for his family.

They could see down the road, see all the people outside who had worked so hard to make their new home possible, along with others who had come to offer their congratulations and good wishes to the family.

“In spite of the fact that it had rained all day, they stood out there, waiting for me and my family, to show us how much they cared,” Jeff said.

When asked how she felt as she saw all the people waiting, Clara said, “Speechless.” It felt, she said, like a dream come true.

And that’s exactly how Jeff described the moment when everybody yelled, “Move that bus” and he saw the family’s new log cabin home for the first time.

A log cabin-style house, he said, had been a long cherished dream, but one he had thought was not going to happen for him, his wife, Clara, and their children, Windy and Aaron.

“It still hasn’t sunk in,” he said. “I’m amazed! I still can’t believe it’s ours.”

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