The volunteers were busy Tuesday morning with thoughtful modifications to José Pequeño's home. A wider walkway to accommodate his wheelchair. Bright flowers around the backyard pool where he does his water therapy. A generator to ensure his medical monitoring equipment never loses power.
Pequeño, an Iraq war veteran who suffered a severe brain injury in 2006 when a grenade was thrown into his patrol vehicle, can't speak. But he thanked the 20 or so volunteers just the same.
"He's crying," said his mother, Nelida "Nellie" Bagley, as they watched the work being done outside their Dupree Lakes home. "He cries whenever he wants to say thank you. And so do I."
It's been a long road home for Pequeño, 38. He has undergone 27 skull surgeries and lost half of his brain mass from the explosion that cut short his career as an Army staff sergeant. Army neurosurgeon Col. Rocco Armonda described him as "one of the most severely injured servicemen ever to return from Iraq or Afghanistan." Outside of extended hospital stays, Pequeño lives under the care of his mother, his sister Elizabeth Bagley and full-time nurse Abby Soto.
"I was told five times to give up on my son," said Nellie Bagley. "The doctors would tell me they couldn't do anything for him. But I told José that as long as he wanted to fight, we would be right there with him."
And she has found many kind helpers. The Veterans Administration encouraged her to apply for help from The Abilities Foundation and The Home Depot Foundation, the home improvement company's charitable arm, for modifications to make the home more handicapped accessible. Those two foundations have teamed up to renovate about 10 other homes in the Tampa Bay area for physically challenged residents.
"Our aim is always to make the house more accessible, safe and energy-efficient for the resident," said Abilities Foundation president and CEO Frank De Lucia.
Home Depot provides gift cards for the materials, and store employees volunteer their time making the upgrades. Workers from the stores in Spring Hill, Port Richey and New Port Richey chipped in Tuesday at Pequeño's home.
"Our employees, many of whom work 40-hour weeks at the store, come out on their own time to help with these houses," said Sylvia McChesney, lead generator at The Home Depot on Little Road in New Port Richey. "This is their day off."
But volunteers like Bryany Carpena and Sanee Cantero, both from the Port Richey store, were happy to be there.
"We're learning to do things we've never done before," said Carpena, 18, as they affixed wheels to the new generator.
"And it feels good to help people," added Cantero, 20.
Elizabeth Bagley's 2-year-old daughter, Isabella, wielded a broom twice her size and playfully swept up parts of the work area. But otherwise, the family members weren't allowed to lift a finger.
"I wanted to get my hands dirty, but they wouldn't let me help," said Nellie Bagley. She smiled and added, "It always amazes me that there are so many people who will do things like this."
Through the years since his injury, Pequeño has achieved a number of milestones that, according to his mother, have surpassed the predictions and expectations of many medical professionals who attended him.
After undergoing multiple surgeries and eight hours per week of therapy, Pequeño can smile. He can raise his hands and legs. He can blink and make sounds.
And, with the help of a few tears, he can say thank you.