Big Changes for a Big-Hearted Family

The crowd went wild as the stretch limousine made its way down William Street in Geneva toward the newly constructed home that so many of them had helped to build during the previous week. “We were still kind of like, Oh, this isn’t really happening,” said Michelle Hill of that week of her life. “We got to the corner, and we could just hear the people screaming down the block.”

Michelle’s husband, Tim, “knew Geneva was great anyway,” but when he stepped out of the limo, “great” was redefined by the scene in front of him. “I couldn’t believe it,” he recalled. “When I got out, I could feel the noise – the vibration.” The Hill family was surrounded by more than 4,500 of their biggest supporters. “It was fantastic,” Tim said. “I don’t think I’ll ever experience that again, but it’ll be with me forever.”

The fantasy that has become the Hill family’s reality is just starting to sink in. It’s been a few months since that fateful Monday morning when ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” bus rolled up their road, stopped in front of their 150-year-old white clapboard home, and discharged Ty Pennington, the show’s host, who used a bullhorn to bid the family “good morning” and announce a major shift in their world. They had been selected for the show and their lives were about to change.

“Sometimes when we walk in, we feel like we’re in somebody’s really nice vacation home,” Michelle said of her new 3,200-square-foot home, built by the celebrity cast, the show’s designers and hundreds of volunteers.

Local heroes
Now in its sixth season, “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” is shining the spotlight on the “heroes” in our communities. Families that reach out to others in astounding ways are being sent on vacation for a week while the crew demolishes their old home and builds a new one in its place. After hearing the Hills’ story, ABC producers could see why everyone in the community knew that Tim and Michelle fit the description of “heroes” to a T.

When Tim, a former boxer, used to get into the ring, he was simply having fun. But he never thought he could find more enjoyment outside the ring, watching others box with the help of his coaching. “Due to some work-related back injuries when I was younger, my boxing career was cut short,” he said. In late 1999, he and his wife started the Geneva Boxing Team, which became a safe haven where youngsters could go to learn to box free of charge. Tim had been renting a rundown space in Geneva for training before the Extreme Makeover crew built a boxing gym behind the Hills’ new home. “Working in the rented space was rough,” Tim remembered, “but it kept the kids out of the streets and gave us a place to train, so it was great and it served its purpose.”

The team has competed across the country, earning 114 titles. Tim has trained three Olympic hopefuls, one of whom is living under Tim’s own roof. Before Tim and Michelle adopted him last year, 18-year-old Aleem “Hammer” Whitfield had never known the meaning of the word “home.” Now he’s a member of the family, and is also the second-ranked American boxer in his weight class, thanks to his extensive training with the Geneva Boxing Team.

Tim and Michelle also coach many sports in which their other children – Justina, 20; Jacob, 11; and Jayden, 5 – are involved. “Our family life is chaotic,” Michelle said. “We’re always going to a sporting event. This morning, it was soccer, and this afternoon, we’re going to football. Our daughter is away at college playing softball and didn’t understand why we couldn’t get there five hours away to watch her game.”

With this level of community involvement, it was clear to ABC that the Hill family deserved to have something special done for them. They had lived on William Street for about 14 years, and time had taken its toll on their house. “It was getting old, and we had some problems with the foundation, and water would come in the basement when it would rain,” Michelle said. “It was a big, old home, and lots of things just started deteriorating on it.”

Waiting and wondering
After the Hills were nominated for the show, they spent months filling out forms, undergoing extensive background checks, and waiting. “A couple weeks after we were nominated, the show’s producers gave us a call and asked us if we wouldn’t mind filling out an application,” Michelle recalled. After each person in the home had filled out the online form, the Hills were told that they were among 3,000 families in the running for a makeover. That number was whittled down to 300, then to 100, and finally – on Sunday, August 17 – to five. “We were told they would make the decision late Sunday night and nobody would know which family was getting chosen until the bus pulled up in front of their house the next morning,” Michelle explained.

During the application process, the Hills started to worry whether a new house was worth destroying the memories stored in the old one. “As time went on, there were a couple times when my husband and I were both like, ‘We don’t know if we like this idea,’” Michelle remembered. “Our kids spent so much time in this house. When they were sick, we walked them around and around all night long. Everybody was comfortable. Then we realized, ‘No, no, no – this is a good thing. We’ll create new memories in the new house.’ It was a tug of war with the memories from the old house and wondering how the kids would adapt to a new house.”

On the morning of August 18, they knew there would be no turning back. They had been chosen for the show and would be vacationing in Cancún, Mexico, while the “Extreme Makeover” team constructed a new home for them in Geneva. While hundreds of people worked on their home around the clock, the Hill family spent the week parasailing, snorkeling, riding jet skis, swimming with dolphins and manatees, deep-sea fishing, and setting sea turtles free.

“I think that was the most exciting for the kids,” said Michelle, speaking of releasing the sea turtles. “Our hotel had a release program, and when the turtles would come up onto the shore and lay their eggs, the employees of the hotel had a little section cornered off on the beach and would gather up the eggs, and when they hatched they would take them down to the beach and let them go. I think that’s something we will remember forever.”

When the family returned to Geneva, they had to stay in a hotel, waiting until the following afternoon to see their new house. “Geneva isn’t very big, so we were a couple blocks away from our home and had to stay there, sequestered,” Michelle said. On the big day, they sat in the hotel lobby for hours, waiting for the go-ahead. “It was nerve-racking because we just had no idea what to expect,” she added.

Plenty of supporters
When they turned down their street, what they found when they arrived was a new home – about 1,000 square feet larger than the previous one – and an amazing amount of community support. “They lost count after 4,500 people,” Michelle said. “The producers told us we broke every kind of record there was. We had the most people show up on ‘door-knock day’ [the first day people can volunteer to work on the house], the most volunteers, and the most people show up for the ‘reveal.’” For Tim, the sea of people was just as impactful as the moment the bus was moved away, revealing the house. “That alone was just as great as getting the house, believe it or not,” he said.

Even now, removed from all the commotion of that special day, Michelle cannot believe how many people gave their time and hearts to helping with the project. “The community involvement was just wild,” she explained. “It was so hard to understand how people felt such a connection to it. We had people from Canada to Canastota [which coincidentally is the home of the International Boxing Hall of Fame]. It was crazy.” She also mentioned that the family still cannot go anywhere without people approaching them to describe the work they did on the house. “People stop us, saying, ‘It was addicting. I had to go every day after work, and I had to stay there until midnight because I just couldn’t tear myself away,’” Michelle said.

Life after “the reveal”
But none have more difficulty tearing themselves away than Tim’s 35 boxing students, who range in age from 8 to 20. “The kids show up 45 minutes early for practice every day, and I have trouble getting them to go home at night,” Tim said, noting that his favorite thing about the new gym, in addition to heat, is the looks on the kids’ faces when they walk through the door. “They’re still in shock at things,” he reported. “These are the kids that don’t go to Disney; this is their Disney.”

Tim’s students can also do their schoolwork with new computers that were donated to the facility. “We’re lucky,” Tim said. “We have kids doing computer work and homework to get caught up before they start training. We tie everything in together, and it works out pretty well.”

The Hills have also received more than $20,000 in donations that they will use for family expenses, they said. Among these donations were five years of lawn service, a push lawn mower from John Deere, and one year of Time Warner Cable’s “All the Best,” which includes cable, phone, and Internet service. The University of Rochester provided $400,000 in scholarships for Tim to distribute to his boxing students over the next 10 years.

A portion of the monetary donations may well be used to defray an increase in property taxes. While newspaper accounts of the Hills’ “Extreme Makeover” experience have indicated that taxes on the family’s new home will be four times as high as those on their old residence, Michelle insisted the exact figure has not yet been reported to them by the assessor. “We haven’t gotten into that conversation yet,” she said.

Tim and Michelle said they feel very fortunate to be part of such a giving community. “[Geneva] is a small community, and a community that supports each other,” Michelle explained. And her husband cannot see himself living anywhere else. “I’ve always been here,” he said, “and I’m here for good. That’s why I coach so many sports, because the kids and the people are great here. You might as well give back to what you’ve always loved about the city to begin with.” And give back they certainly have.


by Kimberly Price
Kimberly Price, a journalism student at the College at Brockport, SUNY, strives to find the heartbeat in every story she writes. A Painted Post native, she has written for the Star-Gazette (Elmira) and The Leader (Corning).