Norm Reformat cried and said he simply didn’t deserve it as he tried to take in the surreal, joyous news that a crew of volunteers had been renovating his house in secret while he was in the hospital.
“Oh, my God. You gotta be kidding me,” he said Tuesday evening as he was led on a tour of his partly finished bungalow on South Blossom Street in Elma. “Unbelievable.”
Reformat stepped gingerly through his new front door, its cut-glass center window sparkling in the porch lights.
He held on to a friend for support as a crowd of about 40 friends, fellow church members, plumbing business colleagues, people who donated to the project and television reporters stood outside and cheered “Welcome home, Norm!” They all followed him as he looked at the new drywall covering what had been open walls with insulation peeking out.
In the next few weeks, a crew will add paint, flooring, cabinets, furniture and lights to what is now a ready-to-be-finished, bare two-bedroom home with new plumbing and wiring that some 75 volunteers set up by tearing out rotted floors and reconfiguring rooms. The volunteers have created a more spacious layout with a great room and breakfast bar.
Reformat, a 51-year-old single father, is a sales representative for Irr Plumbing Supply and a regular volunteer with youth projects and home repairs for people in need at his Crossroads Christian Church.
He fell ill with kidney disease soon after he bought the house. The renovations he started languished, unfinished for two years as he got regular dialysis treatments.
To help, church friend Bill Marshall collaborated with the Christian Youth Corps and other volunteers and organized an ambush-style home renovation intervention. Work, including fundraising and donation-gathering that is still under way, started about two weeks ago: The timing coincided with a small heart attack that sent Reformat to the hospital just as he was adjusting to a kidney transplant.
“Sweet. So sweet,” said Marshall as he led a stunned and often-silent Reformat around his newly reconfigured house. He showed him the plumbing on the whirlpool bath and the pipes for the radiant heat floors and told him about the new garage door and ceiling lights that are coming.
“That’s too much, man,” said Reformat.
“Merry Christmas!” said Marshall. “No more ugly fluorescent lights.”
Friends and family managed to keep the project a secret during Reformat’s stay in Erie County Medical Center. As word got around, support swelled for Reformat, who was known for helping others in need, including taking on home repair projects even when he was sick.
Jeff Abell stood with the crowd waiting for Reformat in the cold and said he could remember how Reformat came to fix siding that had blown off his mother’s house in a storm. “I’ve probably known him since I was 10 years old,” Abell said.
Now, newly employed as an apprentice at Cellino Plumbing, he persuaded his new boss to contribute his and another worker’s time for a few days of plumbing work at the house.
The Rev. Pat Kleitz, pastor of Crossroads, a nondenominational Christian church, said the project made him proud. He didn’t have anything to do with the organizing. The “Storm Norm” project had its own powerful momentum. It is exactly the sort of thing his 600 parishioners should do more often, he said.
Kleitz had a career as a contractor for more than 30 years and now the church he started with a small group 25 years ago was full of people in the building trades who have talent for this kind of work.
On Thanksgiving Day, 15 people came to work on the house, cooking a turkey over coals and beneath a garbage can.
“These guys are having garbage-can turkey for Thanksgiving. Go figure,” he said. “We’re doing what we were created to do. To serve one another. To take care of each other.”
For Reformat’s nephew, Nate Mathis, 13, it was exciting to be a part of operation “Storm Norm.” Mathis helped rake leaves in the yard and assisted with drywall work.
The family was used to hearing Reformat refuse to let his brother Gary, Nate’s stepfather, help with home renovations. They were also used to him saying he was too busy with work – calculating inventory – to come out on the family boat in the summer.
One of the best parts was watching Reformat’s shock at all the work people did for him. The look on his face seemed to say: “Is this a dream or what?”
Maybe now, with a new kidney and a finished house, things will be different and Reformat will take time to hang out with everyone in the summer.
“He could do his inventory on the boat,” Nate said.