By Sharon Bender
Have you wondered about the hundreds of behind-the-scenes workers on the Emmy-nominated reality-television program, “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition? One life-long New Jersey resident can tell us what that’s like and why he volunteered.
A team of designers work hand in hand with skilled workers and a host of volunteers in a race against time on a project that would ordinarily take months to achieve. Some volunteers are turned away, but many become a temporary member of the TV crew. Who are they and why do they volunteer to work on a show about reconstructing homes and equally the lives of those who wind up becoming featured?
Construction expert, Mike Bianco is the kind of guy you might find on such a show featuring the lives of needy people, but volunteering is not new to Mike. He even volunteered money from his own pocket to get his 35th class reunion committee off the ground. A classmate sent him a private note of appreciation and it got Mike inspired. He signed up for participation in not one, but two “Makeover” editions, one filmed in Irvington, New Jersey.
On closer inspection it is clear to see that Mike has a very big heart and a sense of humor to match. Mike lives in New Jersey with his wife of 29 years who is a teacher. “We do not have any children . . . except the guys that work for me!!” Mike has an interesting past too! After high school, he joined the Navy, believing naval aviation might be his calling. He became a Jet mechanic/plane captain, serving during the Vietnam Era (as he refers to it).
He worked on the flight deck as an aircraft power plant trouble-shooter, receiving three letters of commendation from the president. His acknowledgements were for saving a life, saving an aircraft, and for being the youngest individual to become aircraft power plant shop-supervisor. He was in charge of 123 men. He was also acknowledged for having the best record of aircraft readiness since his Squadron was commissioned four years earlier. During Mike’s third and forth year of enlistment, he was injured on the flight deck. “I recovered in the Philadelphia Naval hospital. That was in November, 1974.”
Mike went to college and graduated Summa Cum Laude from Seton Hall University, earning the BS degree with a political science major and a minor in business management. In his junior year he was selected to represent the University at Jimmy Carter's inauguration. “I was one of only four students who attended the entire three day blow-out followed by the all-night Inaugural Ball. Those were the days!” In his senior year he realized his talent for construction and carpentry. But that wasn’t the end of his dreams. Mike planned a career in law too, but after serving an internship at a local municipal court, he decided it was not something that suited him. “When my internship ended, so did my desire to become an attorney, so it was back to construction. I had lots of contacts and I liked the work.” Mike has earned bragging rights to his construction stories, having been involved in the building of over 4,000 establishments including having a hand in on the construction of a restaurant in the World Trade Center and another in the Empire State Building in New York. He has even been involved in the construction of schools, churches, and department stores throughout the region.
Mike became a philanthropist when he began working with computers as a hobby. “I started to fool around with computers and the more I worked with them the more I could see how people were really getting robbed by the computer salespeople . . . and the repair people too!” Mike helped others with small problems, or he gave them instructions on how to install and uninstall programs. “It was fun for me to do and the people were really appreciative.” Around 1996 Mike began to construct computers from junk machines and parts. “Sometimes the tower, keypad, mouse, monitor, and speakers, or the entire system would need to be replaced.” Soon Mike was refurbishing computers so he could donate them to the needy, “At one time I had as many as 400 computers dismantled in my shop, at least 300 were put back together and given away.” At present, Mike says he is working on around 45 machines that will ultimately find new life and a new owner. He likes to help the misfortunate, but Mike has suffered his own hardships.
In 2004 Mike underwent a fourteen hour spine operation. At a point he could not walk or even sit due to the pain. ”The Doctors told me I needed to have spinal surgery. I went to all types of doctors, the pain was to the point that I couldn’t take any more.” Mike was rushed into surgery. He became the proud owner of two rods, four plates, and eight screws in his back. He had eight bone graphs. All of this was due to having some crushed vertebrae. Mike spent days in the hospital in a body cast. One week after the surgery Mike was able to stop taking his pain medication. But the freedom from pain was bitter sweet. “The first afternoon without pain pills I felt a pain in my chest. At about 6:00PM I drove myself to the E.R.” This time Mike was advised that he was potentially about to experience a heart attack and once again he was rushed through a battery of tests. Mike recovered the experience under the care of a nurse who turned out to be a classmate. “With the good care I got, it was just four more days in the hospital and home again. Right now I think I'm in better shape now than I was when I was in my 20's!”
After receiving a thank-you note from a classmate for his generous class reunion donation, Mike was motivated to do more good deeds. He signed up for two “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” episodes. The first was “The Turner Family” episode that aired May, 21 in northern New Jersey. The design team came to the aid of Beverly Turner, 54, a single mother raising her adopted special-needs children, including several teenagers. She has adopted and raised 18 children to date. The family’s previous home was destroyed by fire. The thing had to be torn to the ground and rebuilt into a much larger, and rather glamorous new three-story home, including a carnival room and an outdoor park. Around 3,000 individuals and businesses were involved in its construction. Before the episode concluded, grateful, Beverly Turner saw to it that every volunteer received a hand written thank-you note, and Mike cherishes the one he received.
When asked about some of the odd-ball action behind the scenes, Mike mentioned an aquarium full of fish that were about to expire under the hot camera lamps. “I called the medics. They arrived with oxygen tanks and they pumped air into the aquarium to revive the fish. They said I couldn’t call the medics for something like that and I responded, ‘just watch me.’ It was really worrying the guy who installed it. His reputation was on the line too.”
Mike explained that the homes are really not done upon the final filming. “They just don’t show the stuff that’s left undone.” Mike and several other volunteers had to go back several times and finish the work long after the TV crew left the project. Beverly Turner from the Turner episode gives personal calls to Mike’s cell phone. “Last week Beverly called me, she said my name and phone number were on the envelope with the gift certificates in it, and she wanted to know if I could stop by and see her.” Mike wound up playing with the kids, broke a toy, and had to repair it. Meanwhile, Mike noticed that it was terribly hot in the house so he asked Beverly about the air conditioning. She responded that it was on, but Mike was suspicious that there was a problem with it. “I checked it out and yes it was on, but, the filters were totally jammed and very little if any cooling air was being circulated. I cleaned the filters. It must have been all of the dust settling after the job. What a difference. She and the kids were very happy.”
Mike stopped by again to be sure the system was still functioning. There were rooms that were still not getting cooled. He thought there must be another unit. “Sure enough it was tucked away in a closet in an almost hidden bathroom.” But still there was a problem. Soon the entire family was running around the enormous home built by the Extreme Makeover crew, looking for another hidden unit. They checked closets, cabinets, and cupboards. Finally a voice rang out, “I found it.” Beverly’s daughter tracked down the final unit that was located behind one of the pictures on the dinning room wall. By the end of the week, Mike returned and the entire house was cool. “A mutual friend of ours was there, the woman who owns three of the day care centers and a few retail stores that I just happened to build.”
Beverly had a surprise for Mike. Her oldest son, Terrance was about to attend his high school prom. He was dressed in a perfect fitting tux and she wanted to show him off. Mike was very impressed. “He looked like a movie star. The kid was dressed so unbelievable. Terrance is always happy and very easy going all the time, but you could tell he felt very special all dressed up. The only thing Terrance wore better than his tux was his smile! That was a night I will never forget.”