CRESTVIEW — Church members have pitched in to help refurbish a military family's home that renters trashed while they were on permanent change of station out of state.
See some of the damages they're repairing: photo gallery>>
Technical Sgt. Matt and Jessica Steele had planned to settle their family — including children James, 12, Kelcia, 9 and Aleah, 6 — in Crestview. Four years ago, thinking Eglin Air Force Base was Matt's last assignment after three tours in Iraq, they extensively renovated their Airport Road home.
Then Matt was unexpectedly reassigned to Germany. When his sister was diagnosed with cancer, the family changed stations again to Cheyenne, Wyo., to help care for her children while she receives treatment.
The Steeles rented out the home through a friend. When those renters left without notice, a family with three kids and several large dogs rented the home.
"They were always late on rent and trashed our home," Jessica said. "We had to kick them out."
A litany of destruction
Among other damage, the renters didn't clean the new bathroom fixtures or kitchen, and painted the original natural wood baseboards except behind, where furniture was against the walls.
Window screens were poked with holes and blinds were damaged. An unidentifiable film covers all the walls. Piles of trash were dumped in the garage.
All the walls were scuffed, gouged and poked with holes. A leaking roof wasn't reported, ceiling vents were removed, a ceiling fan was taken down and other fans damaged, and animal waste ruined the carpet.
All the kitchen cabinet doors were removed, the refrigerator was so filthy it had to be discarded, built-in counters were pried loose and moved, and a breakfast counter was torn out entirely.
The Steeles' filed a home insurance claim but an adjuster said the damage was not willful vandalism.
Miriama Devine, a family friend and fellow member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, rallied church members and community volunteers to restore the Steeles' home.
"It's so sad because they completely remodeled it before they left," Devine said. "It's still in (the) process. It's not done yet. There's a lot to do."
Local businesses, including Sam's Handy Service, Tew Construction and A-Team Kitchen and Bath, have volunteered professional services.
On Sept. 14, six adults from the church and four Boy Scouts from Troop 732 descended on the home and went to work.
They tore up the stained, ruined carpet and began scouring filthy kitchen cabinets. Using weed-whackers, they attacked 4-foot-tall weeds that the renters left unattended in the backyard.
"Some of these people do not know us and they are helping," Jessica said. "We are so touched by all this. When we found out, we started to cry like a baby. We do not feel deserving of this act of kindness."
More work needed
On Sept. 28, Devine will lead another work party to the house to begin scrubbing walls of the mysterious film and repainting. Donated ceiling fans will be hung and electrical work performed.
"It's still a work in progress, but we are definitely seeing a positive outpour of help from the community," Devine said. "They (the Steeles) would never in a million years ask for help or a handout, but I decided I can ask for help for them."
The Steeles are paying for much of the supplies while the volunteers perform the labor.
"These people are the true heroes of America," Jessica, a native of Québec, Canada, said. "I am so blessed to live in this beautiful country. I do love mine but the support and love you show each other as Americans, I have never seen that in Québec."
The Steeles hope to return to Crestview within a year and live here permanently.
"Crestview is a magical place with amazing people. We love it there and we call it home. We are coming back soon to live there again."
Want to help?
Volunteers, including those with sheetrock and air conditioning skills, are needed to help refurbish the home of Technical Sgt. Matt and Jessica Steele. Donated building supplies are also welcome. Contact Miriama Devine, 305-9772, to assist.
Contact News Bulletin Staff Writer Brian Hughes at 850-682-6524 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cnbBrian.