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Hammering home a heartfelt message; Volunteers renovate house for hospitalized man

The crew of friends, fellow church members and strangers working on the surprise renovation of Norm Reformat's Elma bungalow have delighted in their secret and the prospect of unveiling it next week.

"Everything that he wanted [to do] is being done," said Bob Spencer, one of the volunteers. "He doesn't know a thing."

Reformat, 51, a single dad, plumbing parts salesman, and leader of a Christian boys' group, is not the sort of person who would ask for help.

But as his kidney-transplant-related medical bills mounted and his house languished with insulation exposed from the rafters, it was obvious he needed some.

"He started tearing the ceilings down and then he started getting sick," said Spencer, one of about 15 people who filled the house on South Blossom Road.

The house has become a construction zone, with gutted rooms and wood frames around what will be doorways when everything's finished in about two weeks. Sometime next week, Reformat is expected to get out the hospital and discover what has happened in his absence.

As Spencer spoke, men were smoothing over new drywall in the room that will look out onto a new patio, part of the vision for the house that Reformat described to friends. ?The crew kept those details in mind as they planned their surprise: Friends from Crossroads Christian Church in Elma rallied and enlisted the help of Christian Youth Corps, a local organization known for training young people as skilled craftsmen, raising money and gathering volunteers to fix up houses for people in need.

"It's always exhilarating because we're getting to work with the salt of the earth. You see what people are really like," said Pete Andrews, director of the Youth Corps, based in Delavan. "Making a buck isn't the most important thing in their lives. You find on these jobs everybody there is having fun."

This project, dubbed "Operation Storm Norm," combined volunteer help with cash contributions and donations of needed elements, such as the new whirlpool bath and water heater. Money has also come in to cover unpaid bills for utilities and hospital expenses.

"Hopefully it'll really, really affect his life," said Reformant's brother Gary, a construction worker and project volunteer. "Every time I go to the hospital I want to just tell him."

The renovation effort, estimated to be worth from $50,000 to $75,000, includes design by church member and architect Bob Dollman and decor by interior decorator and plumbing fixture client Melissa Pleace.

She has picked out new bedding, floors, towels, kitchen cabinets, lights, and furniture. She chose blinds for a window that had been covered with a sheet. For his walls, she has framed photographs, including the senior picture of his son, Joshua.

Pleace has been glad to work out the new elements for a colleague like Reformat, who she said is easy to work with and responsive. He wasn't prone to "Oh, woe is me" complaining even though he has been getting dialysis treatments every day for two years, she said.

"Most people didn't even know that he was sick," she said.

Project manager Bill Marshall got to know Reformat while renovating an East Aurora building into a now-defunct, church-sponsored cafe for teens. Once they stayed up all night to surprise their team by putting up all the drywall.

"I know Norm's heart," said Marshall. "I know what kind of trouble he was in."

Reformat seemed to be doing well after he got a new kidney and pancreas last month, but it wasn't going to be easy to recover in a house that had so many rough edges.

Then, just as the renovation plan was ready to be revealed – fellow parishioners had planned to host him at their bed and breakfast while the work was being finished – Reformat had to go back to the hospital for a mild heart attack and a blood infection.

So the week before Thanksgiving, the team adjusted, and started to work in secret while Reformat was away.

For about a week, about 75 volunteers have come to replace rotted floorboards and raise a ceiling beam Reformat had wanted to raise for a more spacious feeling.

Last Saturday afternoon the house, which had its contents packed away by church workers, was full of people. Marshall's brother Norm sat on the floor piece to solder copper pipe for the radiant-heat floors. Marshall's son Bill Jr. walked around with a camera taking pictures for his chronicle of the transformation. His record includes a video of volunteers waving, "Hi Norm!" as they worked.

"The most exciting thing for me is to see all of his bills go away so he does not have to go into his IRA," said Bill Marshall. "I want him to come home, sit on his new couch and watch that video."
Reformat's brother Gary has marveled at all the people with "good hearts and strong backs" who have been helping.

He expects the news of the Storm Norm project to help his brother heal faster. The house in its previous unfinished state was, he said, like a little dungeon. Its transformation should be the beginning of even more transformations ahead.

Next, he'd like to see his brother to fall in love. "New house, new life, new wife."