Jesse Gooch's idea to offer a free paint job to weathered houses in need, like the bungalow he just painted for a delighted family on Wheatfield Street, came to him as he brainstormed ways to make his painting company stand out in a weak economy.
"It was kind of like an epiphany," said Gooch, 33, president of Painters Plus at 800 Walck Road.
"I'm trying to think of what I can do to be able to help somebody else in need," he said. "Then it kind of occurred to me: You know, I drive past these homes on a daily basis in the Tonawandas that really need a paint job."
Until last weekend, the gray clapboard house on Wheatfield had a battered look with bare wood showing. About 15 volunteers, including Mayor Robert Ortt, painted for about five hours on Saturday and transformed it into a home with a new, finished look.
Gooch, who will now collect photos and hardship letters for next year, said the gray bungalow was the first of an annual event for the project he calls H.O.P.E., or Helping Others Paint Exteriors.
"It was bad," said Janet Steingasser, who lives with her husband, John, a Vietnam veteran, in the Wheatfield Street house they bought in 1998. "It looks beautiful now."
John Steingasser lives on Social Security checks and still has trouble with traumatic memories from his time as a medic in the Vietnam War. Janet works coating surgical knives in silicone as a dip plate technician at the Metal Cladding plant in Lockport.
Their income is limited, and they haven't had the money to paint. They pay for home improvements gradually: Recently they put on a new roof and put in a new driveway. Painting was next on the list.
The gift of free painting was a great surprise. They applied, along with about a dozen others, at the suggestion of neighbor and Common Council member Richard Andres.
"I was ecstatic that we were the winners I told everybody at work. They were so happy for us," Janet said. "I hope this program works well. Next year maybe we'll be able to help paint somebody else's house."
Painters Plus is about 12 years old. How did it develop into a business with two, four-man crews at the current Walck Road location?
I actually worked for a painting contractor just out of high school. I learned the trade from the ground up. The contractors began to leave jobs unfinished. I went to the jobs that he didn't complete. That kind of got me going.
I started with one brush, one ladder and a 1979 Ford pickup truck. It was a humble beginning, that's for sure.
I moved, basically, from my house to Niagara Falls Boulevard. I was there for a few years. We actually outgrew that building. We have a 5,000-square-foot warehouse now.
Why do you think you're successful?
Extreme attention to detail. We really pay attention to the customer's needs. We did a job for a couple in the past month. An elderly couple. It was a two-story house. We cleaned all of their second-story windows. We really wanted to clean the high ones. They were absolutely tickled to death that we went that extra mile.
Now that lady's going to refer us to her neighbors and her friends. I'm going to get more extra business for that good deed.
What inspired you to find a way to paint houses in need?
I came up with the idea about two years ago. I was actually visiting my relatives in Florida. I was hanging out on the beach. Even though I was away from my business, I was spending a lot of time thinking about my business. I was sitting down there, going 'We're going through a nationwide recession ' I'm trying to think of what I can do to be able to help somebody else in need.
There's a lot of houses that have peeling paint and very dingy colors. I really feel that, for the most part, we live in a community where people live with dignity. I really don't think it's neglect. Either you can afford it. Or, you really want to get it done and you just can't afford it. That reason is what drove me to try to be able to help a family.
How did you get attention for this?
I contacted the mayor and his staff. Told him my crazy idea. They thought it was a great idea, and they agreed to it. The mayor actually put out a press release introducing the whole project for us. That's how I was able to advertise.
How did you pick John Steingasser from the dozen or so who applied?
I feel he was the best candidate. He's a Vietnam veteran. I also had to take into consideration the house. His paint was just peeling horribly. He was on the road where all of his neighbors have really nice looking houses. Basically, he was the sore thumb of the neighborhood.
How much would it have cost to pay for the job?
Close $3,000 to $4,000. We actually felt that we helped make a difference in someone's life. You actually can't put a price on that.
How do people apply? Call 693-7587. We'll give them information of how they can apply and what they need to do to put their applications in for next year. As this thing becomes a little bigger, we might eventually open it up, possibly, to Western New York.
What do you like about painting houses? I like to make a house that really looks dingy and kind of cruddy to over-the-top beautiful and I can say, "Hey, I did that." Or, "We did that." It's just self-rewarding.
It actually relaxes me. It just puts me in a tranquil state. I actually like to be able to flow. It puts me in a peaceful state of mind because it's something I have passion for. Plus I get paid to boot. I really like the transition of making something from ordinary to extraordinary.