CYNTHIANA — It was the true story of how small-town people really do know their neighbors and really will do anything for them. And it played beautifully on TV on a Sunday night in spring of 2006.
Three years later, it's a test of the meaning of generosity and, maybe, its limits.
In 2006, ABC's Emmy-winning feel-good show, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, challenged a Cincinnati homebuilder, a handful of Cynthiana contractors and every one of that town's subcontractors, churches, painters, drywallers, carpenters, restaurateurs and good-hearted others to donate tons of materials, labor and time to help build a house for the Hassall family of Sunrise.
The Hassalls were mighty deserving. Brian, a Cynthiana police officer, had been shot when he served as a Transylvania University officer and had continuing trouble with migraines, significantly aggravated by light. His wife, Michelle, was a much beloved high school music teacher who had a long battle with cancer as well as a blood disorder. They had two young adopted children, one with special needs.
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No wonder ABC was on board.
Unfortunately, the build for the Hassalls' home occurred during some of the most relentlessly nasty and thoroughly soaking 105 hours that spring could manage. Nevertheless, 300 volunteers a day came trudging up the slippery roads toward the house to mop or nail, or to serve hot food to the dozens of other volunteers who were slogging to get the house ready for when the Hassalls were set to return from Disney World.
But, sure enough, when the Hassalls' then 6-year-old daughter, Alex, appeared fresh from Florida in her Disney princess gown, the 3,298-square-foot house was more than ready. With all the accompanying fanfare that ABC and an excited town of 6,272 and the Harrison County High School choir could manage, the family was given the keys to their brand new home. The tears shed that day were real. The camaraderie of that day has lingered.
That is, until this month, when the Hassall family announced that they have put the house up for sale.
They have tried explaining themselves. Many of Michelle's medical problems, she says, are exacerbated by stress, which will be eased when their household debt is erased. They would also like to be closer to the center of downtown Cynthiana, to their families and a little closer to Lexington and to their medical providers.
They are not leaving Harrison County. They are downsizing. Their goal is to become debt-free, they say. It is a goal they began to embrace only six months after the house was built when they attended syndicated talk radio show host Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace University workshop at their church.
Before the announcement, the Hassalls said, they prayed extensively about the decision and did not make it lightly. They then notified the production company, their church and the construction companies that handled the load back in 2006.
The asking price for the home on 5.17 acres on Kentucky Hwy. 1284 is $349,900. (There are only five other homes in the county in that approximate price range.)
The small town that built the house out of a genuine desire to provide a safe haven for this particular family is reeling from the news of the proposed sale.
Most have accepted the decision and understand it. Others are not so sympathetic.
People say they came away from the 2006 experience sincerely changed. Contractor Steve Eads said he had the feeling he had "been training my whole life to do this" one thing. He'd sat in church the week before the build began as Michelle Hassall read Scripture and had been overcome "knowing" that the whole thing had been ordained by God.
Told by the Hassalls as early as January of their decision, he said he has no problem with it. "It is like, if you had a flat tire on the side of the road and I pulled over and fixed it. It is their house. They can do what they want with it. I have received more blessings from it than I ever put into it."
But, yes, he says, all along the Hassells have been concerned that some people would be upset by their choice.
Builders Jimmy and Trudy Sosbe, who barely slept during the seven-day building ordeal, came away from the experience swelled with pride for the community they had helped bring together and personally glad they could live their values out loud for their children to witness.
Last week, Trudy Sosbe said she has almost become afraid of leaving her house because she is so tired of people asking her how she and her husband feel about the new situation.
"We, well, ultimately, we wish the best for them. They are our friends. In these days and times, we are all doing what is best for our families," Trudy Sosbe said. "But, that said, I am concerned about what others feel. A lot of people gave time, product and services. Some are very angry. Some I've run into have asked, 'Why do they deserve it?' "
Trudy Sosbe says she and her husband both say they were grateful that they were able to do this for their friends. "Still, a tiny part of me is sad about it. One day (recently), I just sat down and bawled. You know, we do this thing for them, and they're not going to keep it. It was for them. Then I decided they got to keep it for three years ...
"The end result was I didn't do it to benefit me. We did it to benefit them."
Gayle Velat, who commandeered her daughters and granddaughters into wrangling every volunteer, said she "is not that excited about it, but we understand where they're at."
George, Gayle's husband, was one of the main subcontractors on the job. There was never a time when a member of his family was not on the site.
The Velats, too, have been bombarded by a community that wants some answers.
"Everybody's a little bitter," Velat said. "We keep hearing, 'After all you did, aren't you ticked off?' We are sad, not upset. But not everybody can be convinced to be generous."
Putting their gift in God's hands
The Hassalls acknowledge mostly overwhelming support for their decision. They say they have only heard two negative responses. The first was a letter to the editor in the Cynthiana Democrat newspaper, and the other was from a schoolmate of one of their children.
"People have been very understanding," Michelle said. "They know our situation. We have talked to the church and to the local paper. We are doing what is best for our family. The rest is rumors, and we are not paying attention to that."
The Hassalls are referring to remarks made on the Internet Topix page devoted to Cynthiana. On it, local folks have weighed in with all manner of opinion since the house was put up for sale. All of those are anonymous.
The letter to the editor in the Cynthiana paper was not.
Cynthiana resident Sandy Sageser begins her letter of May 21 simply: "The entire Hassell (sic) family story is a disgrace and humiliation to this community ...."
What the Hassalls are being charged with, in not very veiled terms, is this: They took what Cynthiana so lovingly gave them, and they are profiting by it.
The Hassalls don't see it that way. For starters, Extreme Makeover's producers paid only their second mortgage, which they took out to pay for the adoption of their son. After the old house was torn down and the new one built, they were left with a first mortgage on a house still valued at $117,000 (according to property records), much larger utility bills and a new and larger tax bill.
(The Herald-Leader was asked by the production company to put questions about the Hassall house into an e-mail message. We did. No reply was forthcoming.)
Secondly, since the family began its faith-based financial peace program, they say they have put their gift into God's hands. They have prayed extensively about this. They are certain it is what is right for them.
Michelle will still teach at the high school "as long as God gives me breath." Brian is staying with the city police force. They say they have been a part of this community for nine years and are not leaving now.
'This is not a crisis'
On Thursday, the Cynthiana Democrat published an editorial in support of the Hassalls. Letters to the editor backing the family's decision were also printed.
Four miles down the road from the Hassalls' home, Antioch Mills Christian Church served as a staging area for the build three years ago. It is not the Hassalls' home church. There, minister of family and children Lonnie Love tried to offer some perspective on the town's so-called recent "crisis" over the area's most famous for-sale sign.
"This is not a crisis," Love said. "Kids going hungry in this county because their parents are out of work is a crisis. It's a house. (This judgment of their actions) really irks me. It's silly and childish. If the people who volunteered are upset, did they miss the whole point of helping their neighbor?"
Trudy Sosbe says that what happened down at that house on those seven days three years ago will, for her, "last forever. I still get goose bumps when I think of what we accomplished. I could pick up my cell phone at 2 a.m. or 9 a.m. and say 'I need something,' and it was there. People made sacrifices you wouldn't believe. They got out of bed to deliver framing nails in the middle of the night because that's when we needed them. Olive Garden delivered hot food at 2 a.m. but somehow forgot to bring utensils. I will never forget all of us, freezing to death, rain pouring off us, digging in, eating spaghetti because we were hungry and keeping our hands warm at the same time."
She laughs softly, then adds, "You know, you can go through life and only worry about yourself, or you can go through life and take every opportunity to help others. We're going to go with helping others."