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Pieces of Eight

Volunteers working with ABC’s “Extreme Makeover Home Edition” maneuver a wall into place for a new home construction in Jamesville. ECU faculty and students joined more than a thousand volunteers to build a new home for the family of Jeff Cooper, a veteran who suffers from Gulf War Syndrome. (Photos by Cliff Hollis)

Pirate Volunteers Enjoy ‘Extreme’ Experience

By Christine Neff

They gave up Spring Break for an experience that could only be described as extreme.

East Carolina University students volunteered for ABC’s “Extreme Makeover Home Edition,” building a new home for a Jamesville family, March 7 – 13.

Students in ECU’s Construction Management program made up most of the university’s volunteers. Seventy-five to 80 students from the department volunteered at the site. About six students in the program served as project team leaders. Construction Management Instructor Bryan Wheeler and graduate West Overman acted as project managers.

They joined Edenton Builders and more than one thousand volunteers from around the region to work 12-hour shifts and 24-hour days building a new home for the family of Jeff Cooper, a decorated and disabled Gulf War veteran.

“The most impressive part of this is the magnitude of it,” said Jerry Langston, a senior ECU student in construction management. “It’s not the fact that we’re building a huge house. It’s the fact that there is a coordinated effort of people who are volunteering their time and doing what should be a 16- to 24-week project in 106 hours or less.”

Facing that time crunch, the army of volunteers rarely rested. By the afternoon of Monday, March 9, they began securing the first walls of the new home on Cooper Lane. ECU students could be spotted in the crowd by the PeeDee stickers attached to their white hard hats.

Students said adrenaline kept them going through the long days and hard work. “This is too much fun for it to be tiring,” said ECU sophomore Daniel Gorman.

ECU Construction Management Instructor Bryan Wheeler breaks for lunch during construction.

Langston said he kept in mind the family they’re helping. “It’s great to do this for a family that has the needs they have. We know at the end of the week, this family will come into a brand new house that is handicapped accessible,” he said.

Jeff Cooper, his wife, Clara, and their children, Windy and Aaron, faced many challenges in their old home. Both Jeff and his son are disabled. Jeff, who suffers from Gulf War Syndrome, immune disorders and multiple sclerosis, uses a wheelchair. Aaron lost most of his right arm when he was run over by a garbage truck two years ago.

The double-wide trailer where they had been living had faulty wiring, a sinking roof and a rotting wheelchair ramp, according to a press release from “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” The new home will be a tremendous improvement.

“This is truly about service. That’s why we’re here,” said Bryan Wheeler, an ECU teaching instructor.

Wheeler has experience with service projects. Before coming to ECU, he worked as a construction coordinator for the United Methodist Church for 13 years, building fellowship halls and churches with mostly volunteer help. He has also coordinated construction work during mission trips to Central America, including a 2008 trip to Nicaragua.

“With willing hearts, you can get anything done,” Wheeler said. “The three key things at work are flexibility, patience and a tremendous amount of love and passion to be involved in construction and serve this family.”

Wheeler said he was impressed by the passion he saw in his students. “Whatever you need them to do, they’ll do. They’re willing to pitch in for anything you ask of them,” he said.

Students performed a range of tasks, from formwork and concrete construction to more menial jobs. “Anything asked, really,” said Jeremy Wells, ECU sophomore. “We shoveled dirt for about 45 minutes a while ago.”

In addition to the service experience, the ECU Construction Management students benefited from seeing a home project unfold from beginning to end.

“I think it’s just spectacular to see all of the trades working together,” Gorman said. Langston added, “We’ve seen how a building progresses from underground to superstructure in a matter of hours, as opposed to days or weeks. And to know that people aren’t here being paid for their work – it’s pretty amazing.”

The Jamesville episode of “Extreme Makeover Home Edition” will air on ABC in May.

This page originally appeared in the March 20, 2009 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at