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REALITY TV: A HOME OVERHAUL // Bittersweet makeover

Published Mar. 14, 2005|Updated Aug. 2, 2006

James Dolan couldn't see his new house, but standing before it Sunday as cameras rolled, thousands cheered and his wife leaned close to describe it, he wept.

Dolan, blind since a workplace shooting took his eyes, returned from a week in Puerto Rico with his wife and three children to the neighborhood where ABC-TV's Extreme Makeover: Home Improvement and Lexington Homes had been working around the clock.

Seven days after he was whisked away by the reality show in a limousine, he stood on the threshold of his new house. Wiping away tears, he waved to a crowd of thousands that stretched down the street and around the corner along 99th Way N.

His oldest son, Charlie, 12, made the family's only public comment.

"Thank you everyone for fixing our house," he shouted as he waved to the throng.

Dolan, 30, was blinded in the Nov. 18 St. Petersburg Radio-Shack shootings. A gunman shot Dolan and killed two others in the store before turning the gun on himself.

Dolan's story caught the attention of Extreme Makeover, a reality show where ABC's team works with a local builder to overhaul _ and in most cases, replace _ a home for a family struggling to overcome adversity.

WFTS-Ch. 28 features producer Vicky Benchimol said she called the show in November to suggest producers look at the Dolans' plight, helping to elevate the story from the almost 2,000 requests the show gets every week. But she wouldn't take credit for the idea. That, she said, came from Tampa viewer Jim Carson.

Carson, a 48-year-old salesman and Extreme Makeover fan, said the Dolans' story touched him.

"Here he was, working a second job to pay to fix up his house, and he's shot, just working at his job," Carson said. "I said, "They have never been here in Tampa, but what a perfect scenario. They could really make a difference.' "

Extreme Makeover star Ty Pennington, his photo crew and design team rolled up on the Dolans' 1960s-era ranch house March 6. Until then, the Dolans didn't know they were selected for the makeover. Producers rushed them to Puerto Rico, where they were kept incommunicado while the home was razed and replaced with a huge new house incorporating features designed to make Dolan's life easier.

Crowds each day lined the quiet street around Dolan's home while workers poured concrete and hammered nails. They tromped across lawns and clogged nearby roads. Workers pulled up concrete and sawed through the nights. But neighbors remained in good spirits.

"I'm so glad it's over," said neighbor John McNaughton, smiling.

McNaughton's dog _ a 5-year-old great Dane named Blu _ developed a nervous condition and had to spend three days at a veterinarian's office. And when McNaughton couldn't sleep, the production crew sent him to a hotel for a night. But he arrived to find a rowdy spring break crowd cranking up.

On the way to the hotel, his new Cadillac was totaled in a wreck. Still, he's not complaining.

"It was all worth it, all for a great cause," he said.

Lexington Homes president Craig Gallagher, who went without sleep a few nights himself, said the work was grueling. The home went up in 79 hours, a record for Extreme Makeover, he said.

"If someone came to me and said, "I'll give you $1-million if you build me a house this fast,' I'd say, "not a chance.' It took two years off my life."

Lexington Homes and partner AmeriElite during the project formed the Amerilex Foundation, a charitable arm that donated $100,000 to the Dolans, on top of a mountain of other gifts pouring in from the community.

After hours of waiting outside the house, the crowd was rewarded as the Dolans rolled up in a black limo.

Pennington opened the car door and talked quietly with the family, their view of the house blocked by the bus that serves as a traveling office for the cast. On command, at 2:54 p.m., the bus rolled away.

There was silence as Dolan's wife, Chrissy, whispered into his ear. And in a moment, he reached to wipe away tears. He was wiping tears again as producers opened the front door and ushered him inside for a tour.

Eduardo Xol, one of the show's featured designers, said this episode was special. He said the cast was touched by the Dolans' spirit and by the love the family shares. As they went inside, he said he was struggling with his feelings.

"It's hard to speak right now," he said. "It's been an emotional experience."

Details of the home won't be unveiled until the show airs on ABC in five to eight weeks. But early reports note it has a room for Chrissy Dolan's brother, Phil Yeager, and his fiancee, Lauren Schneider, who are staying with the family to help. In addition, each bedroom has a theme, ranging from jungle to Cinderella (for daughter Haley, 6) to robotics (for Charlie).

Chrissy Dolan's mother, Barbara Bickel, stood by a collage of photographs documenting James and Chrissy Dolan's love. They've been together since they were 14, and married when Chrissy was 17.

"I had to sign for her, when they were married," Bickel said. "A lot of people said I was crazy, but I could just look at them and tell they were made for each other."

Next week marks their 10th anniversary.

"It's only the beginning for them," Bickel said.

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