Tyler Southern came home from Afghanistan a triple quadriplegic after he stepped on a mine and lost both legs, his right arm, and some of the use of his left. When he got home, high school friend Ashley Statti came and spent the better part of a week visiting with him. Southern’s parents asked Ashley if she would like a job as a non-medical care giver for Tyler. She said it took her about an hour to make the decision. Over time, they fell in love, married and are now living a normal life.
Tyler and Ashley both agree that Tyler needs to be able to be independently in order to live a fulfilled life, and he was able to achieve that independence when he was given a fully adapted handicap home that enables him to be home alone, without care, the entire day.
The home was provided by Homes For Our Troops, an organization that hopes to complete twelve such homes this year for returning and severely disabled veterans. The $330,000 homes would be impossible for these vets to achieve otherwise.
Jennifer Fiorentino, spokeswoman for the organization, said that the average home costs an average of 330,000, and are specially adapted for the particular needs of each veteran. They all feature open floor plans and wide doorways, roll-under sinks and stovetops, and in the bathroom there is a roll-in shower and bathtub. The plan is much wider throughout for more wheelchair movability. “We have some vets who are complete paralyzed, and if they need voice activation or a lift and move system, this can help them transition from needing a constant caregiver to living independently in their own home.”
Fiorentino said the organization has just delivered it's 110th home. “We have 42 vets waiting for homes and about a dozen projects in process. The goal is to complete another 25 homes across the country.”
The organization has built homes in 35 states, and two in Ct. All of the veterans served in the military post 9/11, and since 2002.
In 2008, Newtown resident Lois Barber read about the organization in the New York Times. “They were building a house for a 22 year old who lost his eyesight, both arms to his shoulders, had trauma, and shrapnel. I have always heard about people who volunteer, but I wanted to do something to help these kids.”
Barber came up with the idea to host a Beautiful Baby contest. When her 26 year old son was a baby she had entered him in a similar contest and thought it was a fun idea.
For the last two annual contests, about 35 babies were entered, but this year, there is room for as many 50.
Photos will be displayed on a board designed by Randy Muller, an auto body mechanic and volunteer fireman at Sandy Hook. “Randy came up the whole idea of all of the frames. He designed it on a piece of paper. It was amazing ingenuity at its best,” Barber said. “With 56 cherub faces, you can vote as often as you like with as much money as you can. It’s a fundraiser.”
Local merchants have been very generous. The top four runners up and winner will each receive prizes including gift certificates from , , Adam Broderick in Ridgefield and Southbury, in Bethel, and . “Mercedes of Danbury sends a chauffeur-driven convertible and the winner will ride in the Newtown Labor Day Parade,” Barber said.
The entry fee alone would raise $1000 towards a home, and Barber hopes that people will keep in mind the reason they are doing this. “The child whose photo raises the most amount of money for charity wins. Get creative,” Barber said. “Encourage family, neighbors, friends, and most of all proud grandparents, to vote.
Contestants are being sought now for this friendly competition, which begins at the Sandy Hook Firehouse's Lobsterfest on June 8 and 9, and then travels to , Sand Hill Plaza, for 2 weeks. Barber assures parents, “The child does not have to be a resident of Newtown. Last year, babies from several towns in the Greater Danbury region were entered, and last year’s winning baby was Lea Spremullo from Oxford.”
The baby who raises the most funds will have their photo published in their local Patch.
To enter your child's photo (newborn - 4 years old), send a non-returnable 4"x4" or wallet photo, with the child's name and contact phone number written clearly on the back, and a $10 check made payable to "Homes for Our Troops" to Beautiful Baby; C/O Lois Barber; 33 Zoar Road; Sandy Hook, CT 06482