On Saturday morning Emily Tipton, 9, was lounging on the living room couch, thinking about the popcorn she'd make in due time and keeping tabs on The Lion King and the bustle going on around her. "There's a lot going on today," said the blond, blue-eyed fourth-grader from Sunray Elementary who was still clad in a Cinderella nightgown and Tinker Bell pajama pants.
"They're putting a backsplash in the kitchen and a new microwave. They're putting some rails and a towel rack in the bath. I can't keep my balance that well, so I need the rails. We're getting some new doors. They're painting the house and working on a garden bed and a walkway out front. And they're clearing out the back yard."
There were thoughts that a new play set could go back there, but Emily had something else in mind.
"I was thinking that maybe we could plant sunflowers back there now. I really like sunflowers."
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It was all in a day's work for members of Sunray Elementary's All Pro Dad club. On Nov. 19, they came out in force with their families, friends and in one case, their paid employees to help a family in need.
"It's crazy, chaotic," said a wide-eyed Ashley Tipton, 17, who was looking after her sister, Emily, and brother, Zachary, 8. Their mother, Danielle, was at work, and their dad, Kevin, was cooking at a pancake breakfast as leader of Boy Scout Troop 182. "We've never had this many people in our house before. I never expected this. Everybody's working together to make this house look the best they can. It's awesome."
Typically the All Pro Dad group fosters a male presence in the school, with fathers gathering with their kids for school breakfasts, dinners, sporting events, tailgate parties and the annual father-daughter dance, said all Pro Dad captain and guidance resource teacher J.J. Grace. Recently, Grace and his co-captain, PE teacher Scott Carlson, decided to do more.
"We have so many great dads that have so many talents that we wanted to tap into," Grace said. "We thought maybe we could do a community day where we could do something for one of our families."
The Tiptons were at the top of their list.
"The mom and dad are just so active in their kids' lives," Grace said. "They're at most every event here at school, always helping out when they can."
Like many, the Tiptons have been struggling. Kevin lost his IT job with Outback Steakhouse and was out of work for more than a year.
But this family had some extra burdens.
At 6, Emily was diagnosed with a myriad of autoimmune diseases: juvenile arthritis; mixed connective tissue disease, a systemic disease that can attack the internal organs; dermatomyositis, a disease that attacks the muscles of the back, thighs, upper arms, neck and throat; scleroderma, which causes patches of hard skin; and Raynaud's phenomenon, which causes blood vessel spasms in cold temperatures, blocking blood flow to the extremities. Twice Emily came down with hypothermia in her hands at school, and the staff now keeps rice-filled socks that can be warmed in a microwave to quickly head that off.
When Emily's pain and fatigue landed her in a wheelchair, the family opted for a change of treatment from All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg to Shands at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Danielle takes days and sometimes weeks off from her job at Advance Auto Parts in Palm Harbor to accompany Emily on her doctors appointments and hospital stays.
Then, while working on a house remodel, Kevin discovered black mold in the walls and ceiling that had to be repaired but was not covered by homeowners insurance. In March, he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, which for a time affected his cognitive skills and halted much of his work at home.
"This past year everything just got away from me," Kevin said. "We had other priorities, so we just had to let a lot of the big things slide."
Even so, the family was reluctant to accept help.
"It's been a roller coaster, but we're getting by," Kevin said. "We've been truly blessed. Emily's been solid all the way through this, and we have such a great family."
"I always think there are people that are worse off," Danielle said. "We're so used to chaos. I thought someone else would need it more, that we'd get caught up eventually."
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The trucks began pulling up about 7:30 a.m. Nov. 19. Within two hours, the back yard was cleared. Juliana Jones, 6, Jake Morecraft, 9, Desiree Welch, 10, and her brother, Ethan, 12, were eagerly lining up to help put fresh paint on the house.
All Pro Dad members Raul Boffil and Jim Wioland of Extreme Water Features and Pavers spruced up the front yard by laying a new walkway, while Ken Pacimio of K.P. Kurbside Lawncare and his volunteer crew cleared debris, planted shrubs and spread mulch in the new garden bed. Jay Morecraft and six of his employees from J.M. Framing replaced some rotted flashing on the house and installed interior doors throughout the home and the handicap rails in the bathroom.
Schools superintendent Heather Fiorentino also came out with district supervisor Ramon Suarez to pick up a paintbrush and to marvel a bit.
"Look how beautiful this is," Fiorentino said. "We always say that the Pasco School District works as a family, and this is proof of that when you see families coming out to do this. Every parent here is also teaching their child the gift of giving."
"Of course I wanted to do this. I enjoy helping people," said Sunray clinic assistant and "honorary All Pro Dad" Tammy Bero, who was cutting and installing tile for the kitchen backsplash. "I've known Emily ever since she was in kindergarten. She's such a sweet kid. Never complains, even though you know she could. She's always polite and respectful — always."
"Isn't this great?" Bero said. "There are a lot of husbands, a lot of wives, school personnel, friends of friends. They're all here to help out."
"It's just a wonderful thing," said parent involvement coordinator Dee Wioland, who drummed up donations from local businesses. "We just have the best All Pro Dad club in the county. They're always giving."
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Many of the volunteers had gone home, but some were still at it when Danielle Tipton rolled in from work about 4 p.m.
"It's amazing. It's just amazing," she said as her husband and daughter Ashley led her around to see all that had been done.
"I thought maybe they would come out to mow the lawn, but I didn't expect all this," she said, wiping away tears.
Add to that the other donations, such as the complete Thanksgiving dinner from Bob Evans restaurant and a gas grill from J.J. Grace and his wife.
"This is awesome," Kevin said. "Everything I've been trying to do, they're doing for me in a day. I just don't know how to pay this forward."
"Not to worry. You guys mean the world to us," Grace said. He promised to return to touch up the paint and build that backyard play set.