Best of Delaware 2008
Our 25th salute to the places that make Delaware great, plus the Hall of Fame of winningest places ever. (Can you say Grotto Pizza?) As chosen by you, the readers (with a little help from your friends here at DT)
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Steve Anderson, president of Anderson Homes, and his daughter
Samantha, starred in an April broadcast of ABC's "Extreme Makeover Home Edition." Anderson says the project and the selflessness of it's 6,000 volunteers helped to bolster his faith in the human race. Right photograph by Luigi Ciuffetelli, www.luigic.com; right photograph by Ben Fournier
Best Guy We Know: Steve Anderson
The moment the wrecking ball crashed through the roof of Ju-Juanna Latif’s home, Stephen Anderson’s perspective on life changed.
Anderson, president of Anderson Homes in Middletown, was selected for an episode of ABC’s “Extreme Makeover Home Edition” for an April broadcast. His mission was to demolish and rebuild a duplex of two Wilmington homes that belonged to Latif and her neighbor, “Grandma” Rose Morgan, in 106 hours of reality TV time. In real time, a job like that would take six months.
Anderson knew the eyes of the nation would be upon him, but he took the gig—and ended up learning more about people than he had during his 30-year career.
“The amazing thing was that every time I tried to thank any one of the volunteers on this project, they thanked me,” Anderson says. “It wasn’t that I was losing my faith in the human race before this. But I have a lot more faith in it now.”
Perhaps that faith was renewed by the 6,000 volunteers who hung drywall, smeared grout, drove bulldozers and served 600 meals every four hours without a thought of appearing on television. Perhaps it was Tony Ruggio, the vice president of operations at Anderson Homes, who directed the project. It may have been the bank sponsors, who never demanded publicity. Because ABC restricted Anderson from naming them on air, few viewers knew that ING Direct paid both mortgages, that Wilmington Trust supplied monetary gifts and manpower, and that Discover Card set up $25,000 savings accounts for each of Latif’s four kids.
Anderson built neighborhoods in Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Washington, D.C., Virginia and Florida during his tenure with national homebuilding firms. Since founding Anderson Homes in 2000, he’s built about 1,000 houses in 30 communities across Delaware. He and his wife, Laura, are the parents of Daniel, 12, and Samantha, 16, who was born with a condition called isodicentric chromosome 15, an abnormality that causes cognitive and learning disabilities and seizures.
Last summer Samantha underwent brain surgery to alleviate the seizures. “The support we were given through the process by the community was amazing,” Anderson says. “As a family, we were searching for a way to give back to the community, who supported us unconditionally.”
Shortly thereafter, “Extreme Makeover” producers came knocking. Anderson calls the meeting “pure fate.” Latif is a single mother of four children, including 9-year-old James, who has cerebral palsy. Anderson Homes was selected for its ability to build quality homes quickly. The fact that Anderson was a parent of a special needs child was a coincidence.
“Every compassionate person in the world would like to think they know what special needs parents are going through and would like to do whatever they could to help us out,” he says. “But there’s a word that has a different meaning in our lives, which is understand. When you say to another special needs parent, ‘I understand what you’re going through,’ it says you’ve experienced it. You live it every day.”
For three weeks, the secret build was referred to as Project 522. Anderson had to inspect the house, but couldn’t tell Latif she’d been selected for the show. During the visit, producers asked her to demonstrate carrying James up a long flight of stairs. “The only thing I was thinking in my mind was, don’t drop him,” he says. “This is the last time you’ll have to do that.” Anderson knew the rebuilt house would be equipped with an elevator, but he couldn’t tell Latif.
Reality TV shows end when production trucks pull away. Anderson is hoping the Latif story continues. So Laura Anderson, a special needs advocate, is helping Latif with school placement for James and connecting her to organizations such as United Cerebral Palsy. Anderson financed a video by Latif’s son, Antonio, a gifted musician. Anderson Homes also restored the facades of 20 homes on South Clayton Street, where the Latifs live. The street was renamed James Way.
In the reception area of his Middletown office, Anderson points out hundreds of “Extreme” volunteers in a mural. His office is overwhelmed with family photos of the Andersons and the Latifs. A key to the city, which Anderson earned during the “Extreme” show, is displayed prominently next to a proclamation from the U.S. House of Representatives signed by Congressman Mike Castle.
“The ripple effect was enormous,” says Wilmington Mayor James Baker. “The idea of people helping people is so great, and I think every city needs a shot in the arm just like this one.”
“Extreme” was good for business. Anderson Homes developed better relationships with contractors and suppliers, and while there was no surge in sales, its bottom line remains “OK,” Anderson says. Despite a bleak national housing situation, “Here we had a positive story about our industry in the newspaper for a change,” Anderson says. “All the people supposedly just in it for a buck were giving it all they had.
“The price you pay to live on this earth is to serve, so I think you need to find opportunities to give back,” Anderson says. “As a company, it allowed us to express our thanks to the community that supported us.”
Anderson wants to be a better advocate for special needs parents. After the excitement of the show and project has waned, a basic premise remains: The combined efforts of caring people can change lives.
“Having a special needs child, Steve knows this isn’t about building a house with four walls,” says cast member Paige Hemmis of “Extreme Makeover Home Edition.” “It’s about building a house that works with this family. I don’t think there’s a builder in the world that would’ve done a better job.”
Baker proposed that James Way be named Samantha James Way, but Anderson declined. “Samantha doesn’t live on that street. James does,” Anderson says. “But I think that in the end, people will remember both Samantha and James.”
Samantha is already commanding attention, in fact. “She’s very tall, she’s very loud and she’s very noticeable,” Anderson says. “Since the show, she’s gone from being stared at because she’s different and loud to being stared at because she’s a TV star.”