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America Now: A Circle of Hands

Like the rest of the country, Grafton, Wisc. was hit hard by the recession. Despite their own troubles, the people in this small blue collar town north of Milwaukee came together to give hope to an extraordinary family: Karen Longoria and her children, two of whom who have special needs.
/ Source: Dateline NBC

ANN CURRY: Many towns across America struggled over the last year or two, including the one we’re taking you to tonight. But what’s special about the people of this community is what some would see as adversity, they saw as opportunity. Everyone from Girl Scouts to architects, bankers to bikers, rose above their own difficulties to rescue a family and, in the process, became one.

Unidentified Reporter #1: (Radio broadcast) Consumer confidence hit a record-low level this month. Financial crisis has people worried about their job security and future prospects.

Unidentified Reporter #2: (Radio broadcast) President-elect Obama says the country must act swiftly and boldly to deal with the economic crisis.

CURRY: (Voiceover) For most of the country, November 2008 was just another bleak month in recession-time America. Grafton, Wisconsin, was no exception.

(Suburban street)

Unidentified Man #1: Let’s hear for the Longoria family!

CURRY: (Voiceover) But for the people in this small-blue collar town north of Milwaukee, November 2008 will be remembered as the month when, despite their own troubles, they gave hope to an extraordinary family and, by doing so, gave hope to themselves.

(People at event; Tyler, Karen, Megan and Kylie Longoria waving from inside of vehicle; public gathering)

Mr. JIM KACMARCIK: (Before crowd) If you have received so much more than you gave, I want you to raise your hand again.

Ms. KAREN LONGORIA: How do you say thank you to the thousands of people? I mean, this changed our whole life.

CURRY: (Voiceover) For Karen Longoria, it all began 14 years ago when she went into labor five months prematurely.

(Hospital interior)

CURRY: You gave birth to...


CURRY: ...quadruplets.

Ms. LONGORIA: And one lived six days. They told us she was the healthiest.

So that’s when it got really scary.

(Videotape) Are you going to say hi to the world? ‘Hi, world.’

CURRY: (Voiceover) The surviving triplets spent five months in the neonatal unit. Megan and Tyler were diagnosed with cerebral palsy and other medical problems. Kylie was the only child who was born without a disability.

(Babies in ICU beds)

Ms. LONGORIA: (Videotape) There’s her little wave.


CURRY: (Voiceover) They lived in Henderson, Nevada. Karen had to quit her job to take care of the kids.

(Children on home video)

Ms. LONGORIA: (Videotape) There he is.

CURRY: (Voiceover) Then, just as her children celebrated their first birthday, Karen’s marriage broke up. When Megan, Tyler and Kylie were 10 years old, Karen sold her house and bought a new one in Grafton, Wisconsin.  The single mom got a job as a teacher. This was to be a new beginning, a homecoming.

(Karen with young child; photo of Megan, Tyler and Kylie; house exterior; photo of Karen, Tyler and Megan; Grafton banner)

Ms. LONGORIA: I grew up here, so I knew what it was like. I was proud of myself that I could move here and buy a home and provide for my family.

(Voiceover) And I thought, oh, I’m doing better.

(Photo of Longoria family)

Ms. K. LONGORIA: (Reading) A cold wind blew through the...

CURRY: (Voiceover) But just months after moving into their little ranch house on Acorn Street, Karen noticed that her son wasn’t doing so well.

(Tree; house exterior; Tyler)

Ms. LONGORIA: (Voiceover) I was trying to figure out what was going on with Tyler because he was getting weaker and weaker and I knew something was wrong.

(Tyler and Karen)

CURRY: (Voiceover) The diagnosis was as unexpected as it was heartbreaking.  Tyler didn’t just have cerebral palsy, he had spinal muscular atrophy, also known as SMA, a rare degenerative disease that weakens the muscles used for walking, standing, eating and eventually breathing. And another blood test confirmed what Karen already suspected: Megan had SMA, too.

(Tyler crawling; Tyler at doorway; Megan at table)

Ms. LONGORIA: It was hard to hear that SMA diagnosis and kind of process what it’ll mean for the future. And as they get older, I have to be realistic. They’re just going to get weaker, and I don’t know how fast.

Mr. TYLER LONGORIA: (Soccer game) Go, Kylie! Go!

CURRY: (Voiceover) Kylie had never thought twice about leading a life without any physical limitations. Now, for the first time, she felt guilty.

(Kylie playing soccer)

Miss KYLIE LONGORIA: I feel like why were they born and—with this disability and I wasn’t?

(Voiceover) It’s like it’s not fair that they have to go through life like that and I don’t have to.

(Tyler and Megan watching soccer game)

CURRY: (Voiceover) Kylie helped where she could. She learned how to prepare Tyler’s feeding tube and cared for Megan after she had back surgery.

(Kylie preparing feeding tube; Kylie wheeling Megan out of van)

CURRY: Do you sometimes get angry?

Miss MEGAN LONGORIA: Sometimes.

CURRY: About what?

Miss M. LONGORIA: I can’t bend down and help pick up stuff.

CURRY: What do you wish you could do?

Miss M. LONGORIA: I wish I can walk without braces.

CURRY: (Voiceover) At daily therapy sessions, Megan was fighting her disease with all she had. For Tyler, just climbing into bed every night was a two-minute struggle, but he insisted on doing it on his own. But to keep going at home was becoming more and more difficult. By the time Tyler and Megan were 13, they were mostly confined to wheelchairs, and the house in which the family had hoped to begin a new life was not built to accommodate kids with SMA.

(Megan at physical therapy; Ann Curry watching Tyler get into bed; Megan and Tyler in hallway)

Miss M. LONGORIA: Mom, we’re stuck.

Ms. LONGORIA: (Voiceover) This house just didn’t work with two wheelchairs in it. It’s so small and compact, and it’s hard for them to roll on the carpets.

(Megan and Tyler in hallway)

CURRY: (Voiceover) Karen wanted to make life easier for her children, help them become more independent. But how? Renovating the house to make it wheelchair accessible was out of the question. Her take-home pay as a teacher was barely enough to pay the mortgage and provide the family with basic necessities.

(Karen and Megan; Tyler)

Ms. LONGORIA: We just would pray together as a family, just give us strength to get through this.

CURRY: (Voiceover) But life wasn’t done testing this family. Just two months after she found out her kids had SMA, Karen woke up with a pain in her chest.

(Karen cleaning up)

Ms. LONGORIA: I found out that I had cancer. I said, you know, I can’t have it; I’m too busy. But I did.

CURRY: (Voiceover) What followed was a mastectomy, two rounds of chemo, radiation. But Karen says none of the pain compared to the unbearable feeling that she was not able to be there for her children the way she wanted, the fear that she might not be there at all.

(Karen in cap and hoodie)

Ms. LONGORIA: You know, I sometimes think that God gave me cancer just so I could feel what they feel every day. And it put things in perspective, how hard it is them.

CURRY: Did raising them and helping them get through their illness help you deal with cancer? Did they teach you how to face cancer?

Ms. LONGORIA: I think so. Right.


Ms. LONGORIA: Just that each day’s a new day.

CURRY: (Voiceover) There would be a new day, one that Karen and her kids—this whole town, in fact—couldn’t even foresee, and led by a man Karen had never even met.

(Tyler, Kylie, Karen and Megan at table)

CURRY: (Voiceover) Coming up, how a stranger became a savior.

(Jim Kacmarcik walking)

Mr. KACMARCIK: I’m like, we’re going to help this family some way.

CURRY: (Voiceover) The ambitious idea that would not only transform Karen’s life, but an entire community when America Now: A Circle of Hands continues.

CURRY: (Voiceover) It’s party time at the Longoria household. But daily reality for 13-year-old Tyler and his sister Megan is not all song and dance.

(Tyler and Megan dancing)

Unidentified Woman #1: Push!

CURRY: (Voiceover) There is rarely a smile at weekly therapy sessions.

(Tyler and Megan in therapy)

Ms. LONGORIA: Even lifting their head up is hard.

CURRY: Yeah? But that’s good that she’s pushing herself to do it, right?

Ms. LONGORIA: Right.

Woman #1: All right, Megs.

CURRY: (Voiceover) After aggressive chemotherapy, Karen has a chance to beat her cancer. But she knows there is no such possibility for her children.  Their condition, SMA, is irreversible. When Karen got cancer, her family and friends rallied around her and the kids, and a group of college students decided to raise money for the family. The students filmed the Longorias and showed the footage of Tyler climbing into bed to Jim Kacmarcik, the owner of a Grafton metal stamping business who was sponsoring a small charity initiative that encouraged young adults to do more for their community.

(Ann and Karen staring at Tyler and Megan in therapy session; student film of Longorias; Kacmarcik at work)

Mr. KACMARCIK: At first I didn’t even understand the image I was looking at.

I’m like, what is this?

(Voiceover) I actually thought—I thought he was sitting there praying.

(Video of Tyler climbing into bed)

Mr. KACMARCIK: When I understood what I was watching with my eyes, I’m like, we’re going to help this family some way.

CURRY: (Voiceover) Jim first turned to Neil Willenson, a friend and CEO of a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping children affected by AIDS.

(Neil Willenson on phone and computer)

Mr. NEIL WILLENSON: How could we not act? I mean, how much more can a woman take? How much more can a family bear?

Mr. TY PENNINGTON: (“Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”) Hey, guys, I’m Ty!

Get on the bus.

CURRY: (Voiceover) Neil thought that the family’s plight made them the perfect candidate for the hit TV show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” He arranged for a casting director to meet the Longorias. But the show decided to help another family. Karen and the kids were disappointed. But Jim, surprisingly, was not.

(Clips from “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”; Karen cleaning)

Mr. KACMARCIK: Karen getting turned down by the home makeover show, I think, was a real blessing. I was kind of happy. I was happy because I knew we were going to do the same type of thing a different way.

CURRY: (Voiceover) It was an idea Jim and Neil called Hometown Heroes, a grand vision in which hundreds of local volunteers would gut the house and make every feature in every room wheelchair accessible. They would double the living space without knocking down a single exterior wall, replace all appliances and furniture, turn the unfinished basement into a state-of-the-art therapy room for Megan and Tyler and, get this, install an elevator to take them there. Their vision had a big price tag: $150,000. But not only did Jim and Neil believe their community could raise the money to cover the cost, they thought the volunteers could finish the renovation in time for the Longorias to have Thanksgiving dinner in their new home. That was only two months away.

(Tree branches; house exterior; house interior; Willenson, Kacmarcik and others at table; photos of house interior; house exterior)

Mr. KACMARCIK: My real dreams were, let’s try to get everybody that wants to help some way, get them a shot to help. Because people want to help.

CURRY: (Voiceover) But in Grafton, like in most of the US, the financial crisis had hit home. Unemployment in this middle class stronghold had doubled in the last year. Many families were experiencing hardship for the very first time.

(Cars on street; woman in chair; people at dam)

CURRY: People, when they don’t have money, when they’re worried about their jobs, when they’re fearful about their own financial security, that’s sometimes the last time they want to donate to somebody else...

Mr. KACMARCIK: Well...

CURRY: ...who’s having trouble.

SEARS: I think that’s a great opportunity. I think that’s a—this is a great time to donate. I think in the toughest of times, that’s what brings out the best in people.

(Meeting) Just a little handout. I don’t know how many people are coming.

CURRY: (Voiceover) October 20th, 2008, five weeks before Thanksgiving, the first official Hometown Heroes meeting at Jim’s factory, the project’s makeshift headquarters. Present, a group of contractors and community organizers who’ve agreed to donate their services.

(Kacmarcik and others around table)

Mr. KACMARCIK: (Meeting) There’s no doubt we’re going to fulfill the major mission, which is really making a better place to live for this family.

CURRY: (Voiceover) But that’s easier said than done as the builders realize when they meet with an expert who specializes in construction for the handicapped.

(People looking over blueprints)

Unidentified Woman #2: I’m looking at this entrance. And coming up there are steps and steps and steps. Is there a way to just gradually slope the walk around to make it come level with the house?

Unidentified Man #2: That’s a really good idea. From a disability perspective, I agree.

CURRY: (Voiceover) Tom Bartlein, the lead architect, knows the work at hand is immense.

(Tom Bartlein)

Mr. TOM BARTLEIN: (Voiceover) This is a very big project to do in 20 days or 30 days.

(Bartlein in basement)

Mr. BARTLEIN: It’s going to be a big task.

CURRY: (Voiceover) First step, recruit enough volunteers to help the professionals pull it off.

(Kacmarcik speaking to Boy Scouts)

Mr. WILLENSON: Tyler and Megan are in wheelchairs, and without a medical miracle it’s going to be hard for them to walk, and I’m going to give you guys an opportunity to be hometown heroes. Are you in?

Boy Scouts: (In unison) Yes.

Mr. WILLENSON: All right. That’s cool. Thank you guys very, very much.

Thank you, Scouts.

CURRY: (Voiceover) Next, find the family a place to live for at least a month. Julie Schiff, one of Karen’s best friends, hopes she can get a good deal at a local hotel.

(Grafton water tower; water fountain; Julie Schiff)

Ms. SCHIFF: It would normally cost us about $100 to house—to accommodate...

Unidentified Man #3: Yeah, based of the room tax and all that stuff...

Ms. SCHIFF: Right, right, right, right, right.

Man #3:’s going to be $100 a night, so we’re going to do it for absolutely nothing. We’re going to...

Ms. SCHIFF: Nothing?

Man #3: Nothing, yeah.

Unidentified Woman #3: Yeah.

Man #3: We’re going to—we’re going to...

Ms. SCHIFF: Can I hug you? Oh, my gosh. That is so generous. Thank you so much.

Man #3: All right, that’s fine.

CURRY: (Voiceover) Karen and the kids, meanwhile, have no idea what’s in store for them.

(Longorias at table)

Mr. WILLENSON: The one thing that I told Karen was that, ‘We will redo your floors and widen your doors.’ And that’s all we promised.

CURRY: (Voiceover) But that is far more than Karen had ever expected.

(Longorias at table)

Ms. LONGORIA: It was unreal. You don’t think it’s really going to happen, that there’s people out there that are so giving to strangers.

CURRY: What would you be happy with? What’s enough for you?

Ms. LONGORIA: Enough would be the floors.

CURRY: (Voiceover) The plan is to have a surprise ceremony in front of the Longoria’s house in a couple of days to mark the beginning of the renovation—that is, if enough people show up. Only a handful of volunteers have officially signed up so far. Jim goes to a radio station to record a last-ditch appeal.

(House exterior; Kacmarcik entering building)

Mr. KACMARCIK: (Radio broadcast) Let’s bring the whole community together.  Now’s your chance. Let’s work together to make a special Thanksgiving for this family.

CURRY: (Voiceover) A message from the heart. The question is, will it touch the hearts of others?

(Kacmarcik in radio studio)

CURRY: (Voiceover) The answer to that will surprise everyone, especially Karen’s kids.

(Karen driving; crowd)

Mr. LONGORIA: (Moveout day) Oh, my God!

CURRY: (Voiceover) The town turns out when DATELINE continues.

CURRY: (Voiceover) What was first just an idea has now become a rallying cry for a town to come together to help a neighbor in need. The challenge: to recruit enough volunteers to renovate an entire house by Thanksgiving.  Grafton doesn’t know it yet, but this will be much more than a simple construction project. October 28th, moveout day.

(Newspapers coming off the press; mailman; man reading newspaper; road closed sign; people putting up Hometown Heroes banner)

Mr. WILLENSON: (Moveout day) I think the secret’s out a little bit. I think Karen might know that, you know, today’s the day. But she has no idea what we’re doing. She doesn’t know there’s a stage in her front yard. The kids don’t know that today’s the day. But, yeah, it’ll be cool.

CURRY: (Voiceover) But Neil wonders whether they did enough to attract a crowd, let alone volunteers who will help to renovate the house. Julie has invited Karen and the kids to her place to keep them away from the house.  Karen’s friends and neighbors show up first, then the kids’ classmates, Karen’s colleagues, the college basketball team, even several local TV news crews. Then more people, almost 400, many of whom have never met the Longoria family before.

(Willenson and others in front of Longoria house on moveout day; Schiff and Longoria family; people showing up on moveout day; stop motion photography of people showing up on moveout day)

Mr. WILLENSON: (Moveout day) Wow, there’s a lot of people here. I really thought there’d be 50 or 100 people here, and I’m an optimist. But this is beyond my expectations. It’s unbelievable.

CURRY: (Voiceover) Five PM. The Longorias are on their way.

(Longorias in van)

Mr. WILLENSON: (Moveout day) They’re coming!

Mr. LONGORIA: (Moveout day) Oh, my God.

Miss M. LONGORIA: (Moveout day) Oh, my God! There’s a lot of people.

Mr. WILLENSON: (Moveout day) Let’s hear it for them!

Mr. LONGORIA: (Moveout day) Oh, my God!

Mr. WILLENSON: (Moveout day) Let’s hear it for Karen and Kylie and Tyler and Megan! We are going to widen your doors, and we are going to give you new floors, but we’re going to do a whole lot more. And it’s going to be great.

Ms. LONGORIA: (Moveout day) I just want to say thank you.

CURRY: (Voiceover) You’re a proud person.


CURRY: And you’ve done a lot on your own. And you didn’t ask for this. Were there moments when you were just uncomfortable with this whole idea?

Ms. LONGORIA: Yes. Because it’s hard to get so much, and we felt like we weren’t giving back any.

CURRY: Sometimes you have to just surrender.

Ms. LONGORIA: Right. And we did. Was hard, but we did.

Mr. KACMARCIK: (Moveout day) I know today that so many people are struggling. I know that many people can’t afford gasoline, can’t afford food.  Things are tough. So today, in very tough, challenging times, I’m looking for a hero. Are you out there? Are you willing to join?

CURRY: (Voiceover) The applause notwithstanding, Jim knows it’s one thing to show up for a ceremony, but how many will actually show up for work? He’s about to find out. Jim and Neil ask Karen and the kids not to come by the house until the renovation is done. As the family moves into the hotel, the first volunteers arrive on site.

(Kacmarcik speaking on moveout day; people in front of house; Karen and Megan in hotel; construction under way)

Unidentified Man #4: We’re under construction.


Man #4: No more meetings. Woo-hoo!

CURRY: (Voiceover) Four weeks before Thanksgiving, day one, phase one:

demolition. Interior walls, the outdoor deck and fences, appliances, cabinets, old carpets, everything has to go. Workers slowed down when they get to a wall the kids painted when they first moved into the house.

(Construction; volunteers helping renovate)

Unidentified Man #5: Yeah, we’re going to save this because it has sentimental value and try to make something else out of it.

CURRY: (Voiceover) Back at headquarters, volunteers are signing up, 70 by the end of the first day alone. Here’s one of them: Danny Albers. If you’ve any preconception about Harley-riding bikers in leather jackets, throw them out the window.

(Volunteers at headquarters; sign-up sheet; Danny Albers riding motorcycle)

Mr. DANNY ALBERS: (Voiceover) I’m from Grafton, born and raised here. And the community here has always been helping each other.

(Albers on motorcycle)

Mr. ALBERS: One guy falls down, the other guy helps him up. It’s been that way since I was little.

CURRY: (Voiceover) “Harley Guy,” as Danny’s known around the house, works the afternoon shift at a local motorcycle factory, often past midnight.

(Albers working)

Mr. ALBERS: (Voiceover) But then I’m right back here in the morning. So got long days. But you just do it. You make it—you make it work.

(Albers working)

CURRY: (Voiceover) Twenty-one days to go. Thanksgiving is getting closer, and so is Wisconsin’s feared winter. Today Danny’s assigned to help build a new backyard deck. Mother Nature is threatening to derail the project, but Danny and a few others are fighting back.

(People working on construction)

Mr. ALBERS: This here is the last screw of about 1500 screws in this deck.


Unidentified Woman #4: All right.

Mr. ALBERS: We all did it!

CURRY: (Voiceover) A new deck, a new basement, new floors. And the plan is to buy new appliances next week, not to mention that elevator Jim and Neil have been dreaming about. It all costs money, more money than they’ve raised so far. To stay on schedule, Grafton needs to turn it up a notch...

(People working on renovating Longoria house)

Unidentified Boy #1: Trick or treat.

CURRY: (Voiceover) ...even the little ones.

(Children trick or treating)

Unidentified Girl #1: We’re also raising money for the Longoria family.

Unidentified Girl #2: We’re making these cookies because people are making Mrs. Longoria’s house bigger and pretty.

Unidentified Woman #5: We are having a luncheon in order to raise money for the Hometown Hero program.

Unidentified Man #6: We’re doing a little bit of a fundraiser.

(Voiceover) Each teacher came up with some different stunts to raise money for the Longoria family.

(Children at table)

CURRY: (Voiceover) The principal of Megan and Tyler’s middle school promises to kiss a cow if he raises more money than his teachers. Usually, the profits from Christine O’Neil’s pumpkin sales goes straight into her college savings account, but this time she’s giving the money to the Longorias, and she’s not out for recognition.

(Cow and man being unveiled to auditorium; Christine O’Neil in pumpkin patch)

Ms. CHRISTINE O’NEIL: It would not bother me at all if they never even knew I did it.

(Voiceover) As long as the money goes toward them and their great cause, that’s all that matters to me.

(O’Neil picking pumpkins)

Unidentified Woman #6: Thank you so much.

Unidentified Woman #7: Thank you.

CURRY: (Voiceover) The surrounding towns are getting in on the action, too.

(Donation jar)

Cheerleaders: (In unison) We say hometown, you say...

Group #1: (In unison) Heroes!

Cheerleaders: (In unison) Hometown!

Group #1: (In unison) Heroes!

CURRY: (Voiceover) Hard cash is rolling into headquarters. People have given what money they can. But some have no money to give. And if you knew their personal stories, you’d think helping others would be the last thing on their minds. And you’d be wrong.

(People counting money; man carrying furniture; people putting food on plate; people carrying cabinet)

CURRY: (Voiceover) This father of two lost his job...

(Ron Grass)

Mr. RON GRASS: It’s a little difficult right now.

CURRY: (Voiceover) ...and found a mission. But will a possible setback mean missing a Thanksgiving deadline?

(Grass working on renovating house; damaged floorboards)

Mr. KACMARCIK: A little bit of a curveball.

CURRY: (Voiceover) When America Now: A Circle of Hands continues.

Unidentified Man #7: (Portrait session) There you go, right there. Very nice.

CURRY: (Voiceover) Hometown Heroes project, three weeks before an ambitious Thanksgiving deadline. The local photography studio is donating a family portrait session.

(Longorias being photographed)

Man #7: (Portrait session) Beautiful.

CURRY: (Voiceover) Meanwhile, the volunteers, 250 so far, are trying to make the Longorias’ house picture perfect. Outside they’re working on the new driveway. Members of the local college football team have become landscapers.  Inside the house, blue is today’s color of choice. The carpenters are installing a new wood floor in one room and rolling out the carpet in another.  And there it is: the elevator. Karen’s not allowed to go by the house, so she should have no idea about the amazing transformation to her home. But this is a small town. People talk.

(Volunteers renovating house and yard; elevator being installed)

Ms. LONGORIA: On the local news, I did hear about an elevator.

CURRY: Darn news reporters. They blow it. They blow the secrets every time!

(Voiceover) What does that mean to you, to know that all these people are working to make you happy?

(Volunteers in yard)

Ms. LONGORIA: I—it makes me cry. I mean, just the good in all the people that wanted to help.

So what do you want to say?

CURRY: (Voiceover) Karen finds ways to show her gratitude. Today’s assignment for her first grade class, thank you notes for the renovation crew.  One of her friends sneaks into the house at night and plasters the cards all over the walls. Two weeks done, two weeks to go. Despite working a full-time job, Harley Guy Danny Albers hasn’t missed a day yet.

(Karen with children at school; cards in house; Albers looking through cards)

Mr. ALBERS: (Voiceover) The first graders, they were just, you know, good luck.

(Albers looking through cards; homemade card)

Mr. ALBERS: And, ‘I hope I grow up to be like you.’ And I mean, it makes you feel good inside.

Unidentified Man #8: (Lifting cabinet) One, two, three.

CURRY: (Voiceover) The kitchen cabinets have arrived. Ron Grass, in the red cap, is volunteering today for the first time.

(Grass and others moving cabinet)

Mr. GRASS: It’s been a great experience so far. I was going to leave a little bit early, but not now. I plan on helping everybody out as long as I can.

CURRY: (Voiceover) Ron, a 56-year-old divorced father of two, lost his job as a branch manager for a local bank two months ago. Since then, he’s applied for more than a hundred positions, he says, but so far nothing.

(Grass and others in kitchen; photo of Grass as banker)

Mr. GRASS: (Voiceover) The feeling of not going to work every day after working for so many years, it’s very disheartening.

(Grass helping renovate house)

CURRY: (Voiceover) But, as Ron finds out, he’s not the only unemployed volunteer at the house.

(Grass and Mike in Longoria house)

Mr. GRASS: So what did you do, Mike?

MIKE: I left my job, went to work for a nonprofit, and then they ended up cutting off the funding, so...

CURRY: (Voiceover) Mike’s wife, Joanne, is out of work, too. They’ve taken out a home equity loan to keep their heads above water.

(Mike and Joanne in Longoria house)

Ms. KRIS KLUG: You need more potatoes.

MIKE: No, I’m good.

Ms. KLUG: Are you sure? More pork?

MIKE: I’ll take—sure. I’ll take more pork.

Ms. KLUG: Excellent.

CURRY: (Voiceover) Kris and Bruce Klug, local restaurant owners who’ve volunteered to cater several lunches for the workers, have been hit so hard by the economy that they’ll have to close their restaurant after Christmas.

(Kris and Bruce Klug; lunch for volunteers)

Mr. WILLENSON: (Football game) My hope and my prayer is that all of these communities will come together with a common purpose.

CURRY: (Voiceover) And Neil, one of the leaders of Hometown Heroes, is also weathering this economic storm. Donations for his nonprofit organization are way down. Neil, who’s married with two children, has had to lay off staff and cut his own salary by 40 percent. He’ll have to borrow money from his life insurance to make ends meet.

(Willenson speaking at football field)

Mr. WILLENSON: People suffering, I can experience that. But it doesn’t get us off the hook from still being engaged and still caring.

CURRY: It takes courage to not know where your income’s going to come from, to take a look at things you love possibly falling apart and still give. That takes courage.

Mr. WILLENSON: It does. It takes a lot of courage. But once you do it, you keep on doing it.

Unidentified Man #9: A lot of it’s damage just from transport.

CURRY: (Voiceover) Back at the house, a small crisis. Most of the donated wooden floors are damaged and need to be replaced. It’s 10 days before Thanksgiving.

(Men looking at floorboards)

Mr. KACMARCIK: (Voiceover) We’re running out of time right now. You know, we can’t afford any other setbacks.

(Men looking at floorboards)

Mr. KACMARCIK: We’re getting that whole house floored in about 24 hours is certainly not undoable, but little bit of a curveball we didn’t expect.

CURRY: (Voiceover) Ron Grass is back for another day, but without his usual energy. And it’s easy to understand why. Ron is helping to build the Longorias’ home, but he’s about to lose his.

(Grass helping rake sand)

Mr. GRASS: (Voiceover) I’m moving in with one of my sisters in order to make ends meet, and it’s a little difficult right now.

(Grass helping rake sand)

Mr. GRASS: Used to have a home, but I’ll get there.

(Voiceover) God wouldn’t put a burden on my shoulders that he doesn’t think I can carry.

(Grass walking)

CURRY: (Voiceover) About a week later, Ron moves the little he owns into a spare bedroom at his sister’s house. The next day, he volunteers for another shift. For Ron and others like him, this house on Acorn Street is not just a mission anymore; it’s a refuge.

(Grass carrying items into house; Grass working at Longoria house)

Mr. GRASS: (Voiceover) I’m doing it to help someone who’s in worse off shape than I am right now. But it’s definitely helping my mind, keeping me from spiraling downward.

(Grass working at Longoria house)

CURRY: (Voiceover) There are people who, perhaps more than anyone, understand the pain and difficulties Karen and the kids have had to endure. They, too, have come to help, and found more than they ever expected.

(Woman hanging picture; Bryce Klug; women folding quilt)

CURRY: (Voiceover) Coming up, how helping to build a room for Tyler helped to build this mom back up after her own tragedy.

(Cindy Taubner and others)

Ms. CINDY TAUBNER: That was the first time in 19 years that I didn’t feel pain.

(Voiceover) I just felt joy.


CURRY: (Voiceover) When DATELINE continues.

Group #2: (In unison) Three, two, one. Woo!

CURRY: (Voiceover) It’s now six days before the Longorias are scheduled to return home.

(Group of people; Christmas tree)

Carolers: (Singing in unison) We wish you a merry Christmas, a very merry Christmas.

CURRY: (Voiceover) In Grafton’s town square, a children’s choir is ushering in the holiday season. But steps away, on the glass door of the upscale restaurant that had been the square’s centerpiece, a grim reminder of the economic meltdown that is touching every part of the US.

(People gathered in town square; building closed sign)

CURRY: (Voiceover) After almost four weeks, life in a hotel is losing its luster.

(Tyler in hotel bed)

Ms. LONGORIA: (Voiceover) We’ve had enough togetherness time.

(Longorias in hotel)

Ms. LONGORIA: We need to spread out and have some of our own space. They’ve been really good here, but it’s time to get back home.

CURRY: (Voiceover) Karen and the kids are excited and nervous. Home, they know, will be very different.

(Kylie brushing teeth)

Ms. LONGORIA: Maybe I won’t have to do this for them all the time now.

(Voiceover) They’ll be able to roll into their own bathroom and get their own toothbrushes.

(Karen in hotel; Tyler brushing teeth)

CURRY: (Voiceover) If there is anyone who really understands the independence that Tyler so desperately wants, it’s his friend and classmate Bryce Klug.  Nothing can stop this 13-year-old from helping his parents serve lunch to the volunteers, not even cerebral palsy.

(Tyler brushing teeth; Bryce)

Unidentified Woman #8: Hi, Bryce.

Unidentified Man #10: Bryce Klug.

Mr. BRYCE KLUG: Dad’s got roast pork for you guys with mashed potatoes and stuffing.

CURRY: (Voiceover) Tyler has asked Bryce for a full report on the renovation.

(Bryce walking through house)

Mr. KLUG: He says, ‘Tell me what color my room is.’ Duh! No! ‘It’s your surprise. It’s your house. And you should be surprised when you come home.’

I hope Tyler’s ready to have a jaw jack on hand.

Unidentified Man #11: A what? What’s that?

Mr. KLUG: It’s a little metaphor. His jaw is going to fall to the floor and he’s going to need a jack to pick it up.

CURRY: (Voiceover) Pam and Sandy hope they can add to the surprise.

(Pam and Sandy sewing)

Unidentified Woman #9: People I’ve made quilts for, I just know how much they love them and how much they appreciate them and stuff. And so when Julie told me they were redoing the house, the first thing I thought of was, we got to make quilts for everybody.

CURRY: (Voiceover) The sisters have never met Karen, but they feel a special bond with her.

(Pam and Sandy preparing quilt)

Woman #9: My sister is a stage four cancer—breast cancer survivor. And so that’s, you know, that’s just part of the story. I just...

Unidentified Woman #10: Karen has breast cancer. And she’s going through it right now, and I know what it’s like to go through it, and this, I want her to wrap up in this quilt and just to feel that there are people out there who care about her and love her and that can survive what she’s going through.

CURRY: (Voiceover) It is these little details that will turn the Longorias’ house into a home. Remember that wall, the one the kids painted when they first moved into the house? Steve Kittleson, a retired Grafton principal, is using parts of it in a crafts table he’s making for the family. The photographers have hung the family portrait above the fireplace. A muralist is painting a dolphin, the kids’ favorite animal, on a bathroom wall. Megan and Kylie’s closest friends are signing a dresser they’ve bought for them.  Jim and Neil are shopping for a massage chair for Karen. They have to try it out first, of course.

(Pam and Sandy folding quilt; Steve Kittleson building crafts table; portrait hung on wall; muralist painting dolphin; children signing dresser; Jim and Neil in massage chairs)

Mr. WILLENSON: You going to buy me one?

CURRY: (Voiceover) And Cindy Taubner, an interior designer, is hard at work giving Tyler’s room that personal touch.

(Taubner in bedroom)

Ms. TAUBNER: We took all of his favorite things and kind of rolled it up into one package, and we hope he likes it.

CURRY: (Voiceover) But there’s something deeper that is motivating Cindy.

She didn’t want to reveal it at first, maybe because it is so painful.


Ms. TAUBNER: I had lost a little boy named Tyler. And I just really felt like that was a calling, you know, that I really—my place was to help this little Tyler.

CURRY: (Voiceover) It was almost 19 years ago when Cindy’s Tyler died from an infection shortly after birth. She went on to have four more children, all girls, but the pain of losing her son never went away, she says, until now.

(Taubner hugging woman; Taubner working in bedroom)

Ms. TAUBNER: (Voiceover) I did feel him with me during this whole project.  For the first time, it didn’t hurt when I thought of my Tyler, you know? And that was the first time in 19 years that I didn’t feel pain; I just felt joy.

(Taubner working on bedroom)

CURRY: (Voiceover) The house is finally ready, transformed, and two days ahead of schedule. Just a little more cleaning to be done. Harley Guy Danny Albers was one of the first to arrive at the house 28 days ago. And he’s one of the last to leave. He’s volunteered here every single day.

(Kacmarcik vacuuming; Albers and other man cleaning garage door; Albers sweeping)

Mr. ALBERS: (Voiceover) If I had more money or more resources, I’ll probably do more for them, but I do what I could do, and hopefully that’s good enough.

(Albers sweeping)

CURRY: (Voiceover) Danny will be here one more day, tomorrow, when Karen and the kids come home.

(House exterior at night; lit trees)

CURRY: (Voiceover) Coming up, a homecoming like no other as an entire community feels the love, and inside, not a dry eye in the new house.

(Longorias in vehicle; crowd; people with banner; Karen and Kylie in new home)

Ms. LONGORIA: (Before crowd) This is better than a dream come true.

CURRY: (Voiceover) When America Now: A Circle of Hands continues.

Ms. LONGORIA: I’m packing up. We’re about three hours away from going to see our new house. They say happier times are even more happy because you’ve had some hard times. And not that you want hard times, but I think that’s true. Because we’ve had some really hard times, and so when it’s time to be happy, you need to be really happy.

CURRY: (Voiceover) November 5th, 2008...

(Crowd of people)

Girls: (In unison) Yay!

CURRY: (Voiceover) ...800 people welcome the Longorias back home.

(Longorias in vehicle; crowd)

Mr. KACMARCIK: (On stage) Let’s hear it for the Longoria family! They’re back after one month away!

Unidentified Woman #11: They’re home!

Mr. KACMARCIK: (On stage) To see their house for the very first time.

No pink door anymore!


Ms. LONGORIA: (Voiceover) I think I started crying. I mean, it was just overwhelming, just walking in this kitchen and seeing that wall taken out.

(Longorias in new house)

Ms. LONGORIA: It’s beautiful!

CURRY: (Voiceover) This is what Karen’s kitchen looked like the last time she saw it. And now.

(Old kitchen; renovated kitchen)

Ms. LONGORIA: It was like a dream. Are we really walking into our house?

Is this really our house?

CURRY: (Voiceover) Just a month ago it took Tyler two minutes to climb into bed. He won’t have to struggle now that it’s much lower to the ground.

(Tyler’s old bedroom; Tyler’s renovated bedroom)

Mr. KACMARCIK: What do you think, big guy?


Miss K. LONGORIA: Tyler, look it!

CURRY: (Voiceover) In her old room Megan could barely roll her wheelchair across the carpet. Not anymore.

(Megan’s old room; Megan’s renovated room)

Mr. KACMARCIK: Check out this room! It’s much bigger than the other one.

Miss M. LONGORIA: Oh, wow!

Ms. LONGORIA: This is cool. Thank you.

Mr. WILLENSON: Oh, and you, too.

Mr. KACMARCIK: You deserve it.

Ms. LONGORIA: Oh, wow. Thank you.

Mr. KACMARCIK: One family bought for you.

In an odd way, I’ve kind of tried to not really become too close to this family because it’s hard to kind of let go.

Miss M. LONGORIA: This is so cool.

Mr. KACMARCIK: (Voiceover) But watching Tyler’s face and the smiles and, I mean, how can you not help but fall in love with this family?

(Longorias, Kacmarcik and Willenson looking at bathroom)

Mr. KACMARCIK: And I have.

There is no downstairs.

Mr. WILLENSON: There is no down—that’s it. We’re done.

Miss M. LONGORIA: I saw—I saw the elevator! Elevator button.

Mr. WILLENSON: Oh, that’s just—that’s a storage space.

Miss M. LONGORIA: Oh, please!

SEARS: Yeah, that’s a storage space.

CURRY: (Voiceover) A storage space. That’s what the basement was when the family left the house. Now wooden beams have given way to a brand-new therapy room and an elevator to take the kids there.

(Old basement; renovated basement)

Mr. WILLENSON: Welcome to your new downstairs!

Here’s a little thing for you. Watch this.

Ms. LONGORIA: Look at the stage.

Mr. LONGORIA: Awesome!

CURRY: (Voiceover) Megan, you know, I’m curious. Sometimes I thought you were really angry. And so when you see all these people...

(Megan and Tyler in renovated basement)

CURRY: your family, love your mother, love you, and you don’t even know them.

Miss M. LONGORIA: It makes me feel blessed that everyone’s doing this for us.

CURRY: (Voiceover) Megan and Tyler’s future is uncertain at best. So far there is no cure for SMA, and they will likely get weaker in the years to come. But Neil believes that the kindness they’ve witnessed this past month will give them strength to continue their fight against their deadly disease.

(Longorias and others in living room)

Mr. WILLENSON: Tyler and Megan want to live. So, at the end of the day, if this project—forget the house, forget the plasma screens—if this project gives them renewed sense of hope and purpose, that’s something. That’s heroic.

CURRY: (Voiceover) There is one more room to see, a room that didn’t exist a month ago, a sanctuary set aside for Karen alone, complete with a massage chair and that crafts table former Principal Steve Kittleson made.

(Karen, Kacmarcik and Willenson entering sanctuary room)

Ms. LONGORIA: Oh, that’s your room! Look at!

SEARS: What you guys did together over there. Girls, remember your mural?

It’s now in the table. Yep, we...

Ms. LONGORIA: Your spongings.

CURRY: (Voiceover) This entire story is in that table, in the form of a poem Steve wrote and carved into a wooden circle.

(Longorias, Kacmarcik and Willenson in sanctuary room)

Mr. STEVE KITTLESON: (Reading) “A Circle of Hands. Life is but a circle, touched by many hands...

(Voiceover) ...”held in check by love that’s alive here where we stand. Some lives are touched in special ways by unforeseen demands, and yet relief is offered by the joining of our hands, little hands that work and little hands hands that play; bigger hands that care and those many hands that pray. Hands that touch a heart, or stroke a child’s hair, hands that leave a mark on walls in a moment meant to share. A community of love embraces these hands here on display, and this moment shared in time intended to embrace you every day.

(Longorias posing for family portrait; photos of volunteers)

CURRY: (Voiceover) They needed to raise $150,000 to renovate Karen’s house.  The people of Grafton and surrounding towns donated almost 50,000 more. They needed hundreds of volunteers to do the job; more than a thousand walked through the doors. But Hometown Heroes’ greatest achievement may be that a community’s act of giving has, in turn, given a struggling town a gift it did not expect: hope and inspiration.

(Crowd of people with candles)

Mr. KACMARCIK: (Before crowd) For anyone that was involved any way—I don’t care what you did—I want you to raise your hand right now. I want you to keep your hand up if you met a stranger along the way. And I want you to keep your hand up if you felt the love. If you have received so much more than you gave by being involved in this Hometown Heroes project, I want you to raise your hand again.

CURRY: (Voiceover) There’s kind of a feeling I’m getting that you may have needed this community...

(Group of people with hands raised)

CURRY: ...but in some ways I get the impression this community needed you.

Ms. LONGORIA: Wow, that’s an honor to us.

(Speaking to crowd) This is hard. You guys have been great. This is better than a dream come true because our whole community supported us and helped us and inspired us. And you guys are totally awesome.

(Voiceover) Thank you for your love and support, and thank you for making our house a home.