KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --
With Airmen, other volunteers and friends looking on, Keesler's leadership presented an Air Force widow with the perfect holiday gift Saturday -- a livable home.
The combined efforts of Airmen, the Salvation Army and Habitat for Humanity of Virginia transformed the Biloxi residence of 72-year-old Alice Schuler from a moldy structure damaged during Hurricane Katrina into a safe and comfortable place to live.
"This is a story about a lady who needed help. It's a story about the gift of giving. It's a story about service before self. It's a story about compassion," said Brig. Gen. Paul Capasso, 81st Training Wing commander. "This story is just one story of hundreds and thousands of stories that happen on the Mississippi Gulf Coast every day."
General Capasso went on to say volunteers, most of whom Mrs. Schuler didn't even know, were responsible for her home's transformation. Since Hurricane Katrina, Keesler has donated over 62,000 volunteer hours to various humanitarian projects in the local community.
Mrs. Schuler, widow of the late Senior Master Sgt. David Schuler, sent a letter July 29 to General Capasso asking for help to repair her home. The request was forwarded to John Lowe, 81st Mission Support Squadron community readiness technician. Mr. Lowe contacted the Salvation Army and performed a site visit, finding the house uninhabitable.
"She was living in the front room on a twin bed and a small arm chair," he said. "The kitchen floor was collapsing under our feet and the bedroom ceilings were molded and falling in."
The renovation began in August. Airmen and family members of the 332nd Training Squadron volunteered their free time to help. The Airmen adopted Mrs. Schuler's house as a project, and a large number of them gave their weekend hours fixing the house's structure, electrical, plumbing and aesthetics.
"We got involved and kept coming back," said Lt. Col. Steven Ramsay, 332nd TRS commander. "The driving force behind coming back was the Airmen. The Airmen wanted to come back. They gutted it, cleaned it, wired it and painted it."
Colonel Ramsay said $10,000 from the Salvation Army and $15,000 from various resources were donated toward the project. The money was used in coordination with Habitat for Humanity of Virginia, who helped hire contractors and ensured the home was in compliance with housing codes.
"I came here about a year ago with Hands On USA before joining the military and I did Katrina relief," said Airman 1st Class Marc Spehalski, 332nd TRS communication cable student.
Airman Spehalski said the experience he had working with Airmen on humanitarian projects while attending college led him to join the Air Force.
"I worked with some Air Force personnel and I was planning on joining the Army but I decided to join the Air Force because of that," he explained.
Airman Spehalski said when he arrived at Keesler approximately eight weeks ago to attend training he heard about Mrs. Schuler's project and immediately volunteered.
The end result drew emotion from Mrs. Schuler and others.
"Oh my God," she said, with tears in her eyes as she entered the front door of her home. "It looks twice as big."
As people crowded inside to view the new home, Mrs. Schuler expressed her gratitude.
"I thank each and every one of you," she said. Click here to see video of Mrs. Schuler's Welcome Home