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April 17, 2014

VIDEO | Volunteers ‘blitz build’ replacement home for Upper Yoder man

JOHNSTOWN — One week ago, Joey Varmecky had almost nothing.

In October, a flue fire claimed his Swank Street home. That night, Varmecky, a deaf and partially blind man who doesn’t speak, showed up on the doorstep of his friend’s home. His feet were covered only by a pair of stockings.

On Thursday afternoon, the Upper Yoder Township man was handed a set of keys to a new home.

More than 100 volunteers took part in the project coordinated by Beaver County-based Hosanna Industries Inc., a faith-based nonprofit that rehabilitates, repairs and builds homes for the needy across southwestern Pennsylvania.

“We heard about this shortly after the fire in the fall,” said Amanda Becker, a mission worker for Hosanna. “So, we started putting some feelers out as far as volunteers and funding.”

Once money and helping hands were in place, Varmecky’s new abode came together in four days. Hosanna Industries calls it a “blitz build.”

“I’m kind of at the point of exhaustion,” Becker said with a smile just after the ceremony.

On average, Becker said, Hosanna rehabs and repairs around 150 houses and a handful of full builds per year.

Varmecky’s new home was Hosanna’s first “blitz build” of 2014, she said.

“I like it – two thumbs up,” said Varmecky while touring the basement.

His signing was translated through his aforementioned friend and former co-worker, David Lee, who is also deaf and has developed his own form of communication with Varmecky. Lee then translated to his wife, Lauren, using American Sign Language.

“I’m just happy to be home,” Varmecky said.

Becker said around 130 volunteers showed up Monday to start putting the walls up. Eighteen interior partitions were built at the Hosanna mission with that volunteer help. They were shipped by trailer to Swank Street. The exterior walls were built on-site.

Many of the volunteers were local, Becker said, or knew of Varmecky and his plight.

“A lot of people were like, ‘Oh! I know Joey!’ or like, ‘Oh! That sounds like a great project!’ ” she said of the volunteers, most of whom were unskilled builders but willing to help all the same.

“There’s a lot you can do with manpower like that. Not everyone has to know how to swing a hammer.”

Or swing it fast enough to erect a house in four days.

The exterior walls and interior partitions went up Monday, along with all of the siding, gutters, shingles and windows.

Framing, electrical and plumbing work was begun, but finished on Tuesday, along with the interior drywall. After closing up the interior, Becker said the project was prepared for Tuesday’s snowy gust.

Volunteers painted early Wednesday before installing flooring and appliances and trimming doors. The team was putting the final touches on the electrical system just before the dedication ceremony.

“There’s a lot of things that have to fall into place at very specific times,” she said. “So I think there’s a lot of mini-miracles that go into it.”

Becker said utility was important to the design, given Varmecky’s disabilities. Both the doorbell mechanism and smoke detectors are connected to a flashing strobe. In the event of another fire, Varmecky will have a more appropriate warning.

“I’m also happy because it’s safe,” Lee said. “I’m glad they did that. Considering he’s deaf, that was so nice.”

Lee said Varmecky is a brilliant woodworker. The blaze, however, destroyed much of his equipment and tools. With the new basement workspace, Varmecky said he’ll look to start crafting again next week.

“Some of my woodwork and things I learned from Joe,” Lee said. “It’s just his natural ability. ... He’s very talented. He’s got a good imagination, too – creativity. He doesn’t really have to copy anybody. He just comes up with his own designs for things.”

Another personal home touch he’s looking forward to is another self-made satellite tower. Lee said Varmecky built a 60-foot tower on his own in 1995, with steel L-beams and no fear of heights. After the fire, Varmecky was ordered to tear it down due to code violations, Lee said.

“He loves getting different news channels all across the country,” he said.

When Mount St. Helens erupted in 2008, Lee said Varmecky drove all the way to the West Coast for his own volcanic souvenir. He also takes annual skiing trips to Seven Springs Mountain Resort.

“Joe’s more independent than a lot of deaf people,” he continued. “He’s very assertive and he gets things done. He travels, he takes the train, he visits museums. He just loves to be on the go and see things.”

Justin Dennis is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/ JustinDennis.

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