LAND O'LAKES — For more than a dozen years, Amy and Jeff Calkowski have been the owners of Accurate Signs on Time, a busy sign-making business on U.S. 41. But for the past few years, Amy has stood alone behind the shop counter.
Jeff was diagnosed with oral cancer in 2008. And while he endured four surgeries and a course of treatment that included chemotherapy, radiation and treatments in hyperbaric chambers, Amy supported him — while also taking full responsibility for running the business and caring for the couple's 7-year-old daughter, Paige.
The couple, both 42, say they've found strength they never knew they had. At one point in his treatment, Jeff awoke from a six-hour, medically induced coma that was supposed to last days; and he soon answered a doctor's challenge to walk from his room to a nurse's station so he could be released from the hospital and go home.
"Amy and I attributed it to the power of prayer," said Jeff, who has been in remission since 2010. "That, and my daughter. I wanted to stay alive for her."
This weekend the family is also discovering a groundswell of support they never knew they had.
An army of volunteers began a $12,000 renovation project on Friday to fix up the family's home, which had fallen into disrepair as the Calkowskis tried to stay afloat. The efforts include painting the house inside and out, installing new fixtures and faucets, repairing the roof and walls and installing new kitchen appliances. Plus the crews will grant little Paige's request to turn the atrium into a playroom.
The whirlwind 57-hour home makeover will wrap up Sunday.
"I can't describe how happy I feel to be able to help this family. It's beyond words," said Jason Sowell, founder/president of Current of Tampa Bay, a nonprofit that provides remodeling and home improvements for needy families through its Hope for Homes Project. "We want to make their lives better, to give them some hope that wasn't there before.
The Calkowski home needed more than routine maintenance: It weathered a tornado in 2005 and suffered additional damage this year from Tropical Storm Debby. The financially strapped family hasn't had a dishwasher in 17 years.
"Sometimes I'd be up until 1 a.m. doing dishes, then have to be up at 7 a.m. for work," Amy said.
Tim Harvey, a Land O'Lakes contractor and an Accurate Signs client, shared the family's plight with his fellow parishioners at Grow Life Church; he and church members Gary Ward and Brian Butler put the couple in touch with the Hope For Homes Project. Butler owns Vistra Communications, which does marketing for Hope for Homes.
Amy wrote up the family's story and submitted it to the nonprofit, which agreed to tackle the renovations, its first project in Pasco County. While volunteers are fixing up the home, the family will enjoy a complimentary luxury weekend at the Hilton Garden Inn in Riverview, taking in attractions such as the Florida Aquarium free of charge.
The weekend project has drawn friends and strangers who want to help the family.
"Jeff is the nicest guy in the world," said Phil Monteleone, a window maker and onetime business partner of Jeff Calkowski who donated windows for the project. "And the last to ask for help."
Micky Peterson, president of the Krewe of Agustina de Aragon, said her organization's dedication to causes involving women and families made this project "a perfect fit." The effort was more personal for Krewe volunteer Susan Rosenblatt, who recently lost her husband to cancer.
"I know exactly what they're going through," she said, adding, "We don't always know what the future will bring, but it's what we do while we're here that counts."
The Calkowskis are overwhelmed by the outpouring. Amy said that the promise of extensive home repairs and new appliances is easing her stress and helping her sleep a little better at night. And it has helped renew her sense of hope.
"At one point during this whole experience I looked up at the sky and said, 'God, if I can keep my husband, you can take the business,' " she said. "Now it looks like I'll get to keep both."