Extreme Volunteering
Who really benefits when a reality TV show entices thousands of volunteers to build a stunning new house for a family in need?

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Extreme Makeover
Demo Day: Ty Pennington, host of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," above, videotapes himself while being videotaped.

When his wife sits down to watch ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," Ron Bauer '76 usually heads out to catch some Sunday night football with friends. As co-owner of a general contracting company, he gets his fill of building projects during the week. Besides, he's just not the type to enjoy a reality TV show filled with screaming and tears. "We're construction guys," he says of his company, Trumbull-Nelson Construction in Hanover, N.H. "We don't even like to hug."

Bauer could never have imagined himself being on the show—until he got a phone call from ABC last August. Trumbull-Nelson was being asked to perform an impossible task fit for a fairy tale: tear down a house and build a new one in its place in one week, using all volunteer labor and donated supplies. The project would benefit a local family of 10 whose mold-ridden house was particularly dangerous to their 9-year-old son, a leukemia patient. It took Bauer and co-owner Larry Ufford five minutes to say yes.

For many of today's college students, on the other hand, the thought of being on reality TV is not only imaginable, but thrilling. Last September, the 18 members of a freshman seminar on active citizenship were brainstorming ideas for public service projects when someone mentioned that "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" was coming to New Hampshire. The atmosphere in the room became electric, and everyone started talking at once. Many were familiar with the show and its host, handyman heartthrob Ty Pennington.

"I could have come in with my hoity-toity views about reality TV," says Bruce Mallory, professor of education, but instead, he and co-instructor Vilmarie Sanchez chose to harness the students' energy. It didn't really matter whether the excitement came from a desire to do good, to be on TV, or both, if it motivated the class to create its own community while examining what it means to be an active citizen.

Extreme Makeover
M. Geoffrey Carlton II '96 and his Maximum Velocity team, right, cheer on the demolition.

By the time the house was completed in early October, students, contractors and professors alike caught a surprising glimpse of the reality behind a reality TV show. They learned the answers to some of the most pressing questions of our day—Is it scripted? What's real and what's fake? And they had also wrestled with a larger question: Who really benefits when a TV show convinces thousands of volunteers to build a house for one family in need?

Selected from thousands of applicants, each Extreme Makeover family is, like the Marshalls of Lyme, N.H., not only desperate but also deserving. Despite their hardships, Cameron Marshall and his family had spearheaded a fundraising effort to raise thousands of dollars for the Children's Hospital at Dartmouth, where he was treated for leukemia. After learning that his blood type was B+, Cam decided to make "Be Positive" his motto as well as the name of his fundraising organization.

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