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Home improvement demonstrates community's heart

Jaelyn Marie Anderson sat in her high chair and watched animated characters singing on the big-screen TV across the room. She munched on breakfast cereal while mom straightened the house and dad got ready for work. A normal Thursday morning.

After a year that stretched emotions and imaginations, normal is good.

Just a few days earlier, Jaelyn and her parents, Brooke and Joshua Anderson, were pulling up to their house in New Port Richey in a sparkling white limousine. TV crews crowded into the Orchid Lake Estates cul-de-sac to capture the moment. Family and friends cheered as the Andersons got their first look at a house that had been toxic when they left it but now stands as a symbol of a community's enormous heart.

It was Jaelyn's heart that started all this.

When she was born on May 1, 2012, at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater, everything seemed fine. Five months later, she started having trouble catching her breath. Doctors diagnosed a genetic disorder that caused her heart to swell. She would need a transplant to survive.

Five more months passed. Brooke and Joshua stayed at the Ronald McDonald House next to All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, waiting for a donor. In that time, two other babies in similar distress died.

"Even when that happened, even through all that time, I always felt Jaelyn would be fine,'' Joshua said. "I didn't worry. I just figured that if God wanted her, he would have taken her.''

Word got around as Joshua's mother, Kathy Anderson, made regular contributions to the Facebook page "Heart for Jaelyn.'' People donated money, and then one particularly heartless act kicked Jaelyn's story onto the front pages of newspapers around the world.

Joshua's father, Rodger Anderson, is a mechanic for JetBlue airlines in Tampa. JetBlue employees around the state collected donations for the family and on Feb. 14 — Valentine's Day — a crew in Orlando was delivering $3,000 when somebody stole it out of their van as they stopped for lunch.

Anderson Cooper learned of the theft and arranged to interview the Andersons on his national television show. Cameras were rolling when the family learned a donor had been found and on Feb. 28, Jaelyn got a new heart.

The Andersons couldn't wait to bring their 9-month-old home, but tests had turned up evidence of mold and other contaminants. On live TV, Anderson Cooper announced that IQAir was donating a hospital quality air purification system. This, in turn, set about a chain of events that brought more than 25 subcontractors to the two-bedroom house for a complete makeover. Volunteers with West Pasco Habitat for Humanity stripped away drywall and rotted wood. Carpeting gave way to wood-grain tile.

For months, crews worked to replace the roof, install a new kitchen with granite counters and even fenced and landscaped the yard. It reminded the Andersons of the TV show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, which was no coincidence. In 2004, IQAir donated a similar contaminant-free environment on the show for a 6-year-old girl who had a heart transplant as a baby. IQAir contributed to 15 more homes during the popular ABC series.

Saturday morning, Jaelyn and her parents finally got to come home. They had lived in a 500 square-foot apartment in St. Petersburg while their home was remodeled.

"I find myself just standing in this beautiful kitchen and staring,'' said Brooke, 20. "We've been gone almost a full year.''

She figures caring for Jaelyn will be a full-time job for quite awhile but says the experience of the last year has inspired her to study nursing. Joshua, 25, is in his eighth year as a technician for Brighthouse. He hopes to find a way to properly thank everyone who helped.

"We were newlyweds with a baby,'' he said. "She got sick and our lives changed forever. Maybe things will be settled now for a while.''

Normal is good.

Home improvement demonstrates community's heart 09/05/13 [Last modified: Friday, September 6, 2013 7:22pm]
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