Plenty of struggling farm owners imagine going on vacation and returning to a new barn. But Renée Sherrard-Luther lived that dream, when the bus from “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” showed up at her Port Deposit, Md., farm on Oct. 14 ready to rebuild her home, barn and arena.
Each episode of the Emmy Award-winning ABC reality TV show features a race against time as a team of designers, contractors and volunteers hurry to rebuild a deserving family’s home, condensing a project that would normally take months into just one week.
Sherrard-Luther founded the Freedom Hills therapeutic riding program out of her Rolling Acres Ranch 25 years ago, and she teaches 50 lessons a week to mentally, physically and emotionally challenged students. Sherrard-Luther also runs a lesson program for able-bodied students and manages the daily care of the 22 horses on her farm.
Freedom Hills is a family affair. Sherrard-Luther splits the family’s 118-acre property with her sister Robyn Sherrard, who teaches at Freedom Hills several days a week. Sherrard-Luther’s two teenage children, Ellie and Alex, pitch in to keep things running smoothly.
But 2007 was a rough year for the Luther family. Renée’s husband Carl passed away in April at the age of 50 after a battle with liver cancer. Her home and barn stood in desperate need of renovation, but Renée was in no position to finance the upgrades. Like many barn owners, Renée struggled in the face of increasing costs to keep the doors to her barn open and her therapeutic program running.
With a business to run, a stable full of horses to feed and two teenage children to home school, Renée doesn’t have much time to herself. But for the past several years she’s loyally tuned in to “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” on Sunday evenings.
“[Applying for the show] wasn’t my idea. For years I thought ‘I’ve got to e-mail them—one of these days I’m going to turn on the TV on Sunday night and see another deserving therapeutic riding program on the show,’ ” she recalled. “God is so amazing. He knows what a procrastinator I am and stepped in.”
In late July Renée returned home from accompanying her daughter, Ellie, to Pony Club Nationals to find an e-mail from a scout for “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” The producers, who aspired to complete projects in all 50 states over the course of two years, had slated their Maryland build for an equine therapy program in order to honor the state’s equestrian heritage, and Renée’s farm was up for consideration.
Scouts visited several times to film the Luther family promo video and check out the property, assessing the barn and the house.
“The producers told me that they had narrowed down the Maryland contestants to five finalists, and they told me the day the bus would come if it was us,” recalled Renée. “I was so naïve I didn’t really know if it would happen. So that Sunday we were sitting around the breakfast table talking about horses and soccer, and all of a sudden we hear ‘Good morning Luther family!’ I turned into a wild woman.”
Getting It Done
While ABC whisked away Renée and her children to Italy for the week, battalions of construction vehicles descended on the property. The Luther build was the biggest in the history of the show, and the producers lined up two separate builders to work simultaneously on the home and barn.
The challenge of condensing a nine-month project into just one week would give pause to most contractors, especially those who had never built a stable. But Steve Risk, president of Paul Risk Associates, had just the right combination of guts, experience and enthusiasm to tackle the monstrous job—and the common sense to enlist the help of experienced equestrian contractors McComsey Builders. Just as importantly, Risk had the hefty Rolodex necessary to make the impossible happen.
“This is just the kind of project we love. Our philosophy is make it happen, don’t let it happen,” he said. “The workers broke into two crews who worked from 5 a.m. to 12 a.m., and I spent most of the week on the phone. I would call up suppliers and say, ‘I need this. I need it in an hour. And I need it donated.’ ”
In addition to the professionals working at the barn and the separate team of builders from Clark Turner Signature Homes working up the hill at the house, thousands of volunteers showed up from across the region to lend a hand. So many people stepped forward to help out that the volunteer schedule overflowed, and scores of willing volunteers were turned away.
“The most amazing thing about this process was how the entire community came together, and because of who Renée is there wasn’t one whit of jealousy,” explained Beth Clarke, farm manager of nearby Hilltop Farm. “Everyone involved felt that she deserved it. She works hard, and her priorities are always helping other people. It’s great to see her get something back.”
The local equestrian community pulled together to help Renée deal with the horses during construction. The producers requested that a few animals stay on the property during filming, and various friends generously volunteered to take in the rest of the horses for the week.
Hilltop Farm took 10 horses and welcomed the ABC crew to their farm to film a therapeutic riding lesson. Tack shops like Bit Of Britain and horesloverz.com stuffed Renée’s barn with new tack, equipment and blankets. And volunteers stayed on hand to care for the horses on site during construction.
A New Home
“Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” tends to build lavish homes with state-of-the-art features, giving the volunteer contractors a chance to showcase their skills, and the Luther home was no exception. Their new house boasts a laundry list of incredible details, including a two-story barrel ceiling in the living room and a stained glass skylight in the entryway.
But the builders and the design team at EMHE never forgot that they were building especially for the Luthers. The house is wheelchair accessible, so that Renée’s friends from Freedom Hills can visit. The back door leads into an enormous mudroom with plenty of storage and two low-lying sinks for rinsing off dirty boots or dogs. And they outfitted a huge office on the second floor with several computers and a mountain of books, perfect for the family’s home-schooling lessons. They even installed a flight simulator into the bedroom of aspiring pilot Alex, so big it had to be brought in piece-by-piece and reassembled.
“I certainly didn’t ask for the huge magnificent house that they built for us, but I am extremely grateful,” said Renée. “It’s just absolutely amazing.”
The extraordinary, 4,200 square-foot home is a far cry from the aging wooden home where the Luthers used to live and which still stands about a quarter mile away.
A New Barn
By contrast, the new equestrian complex at Rolling Acres is workmanlike and practical. The builders converted the old arena into the barn and built a new indoor arena attached to it. Parents dropping off students can pull right up to the stable under a covered area and unload onto the pavement by the barn door without getting wet or struggling on the uneven ground.
The old arena had wooden posts holding up the ceiling in the middle of the ring, which became a hazard for riders and sidewalkers, and bruised knees proved inevitable. The location of the complex on a hill prevented the contractors from building a significantly bigger indoor arena during the allotted week, but the new 70 x 100-foot arena was covered in fabulous fluffy footing, courtesy of Arena Works. Paul Risk Associates also lined part of the ground with rubberized brick pavers so that students can safely mount and spectators may watch out of the way.
Thanks to its former life as an arena, the new barn has an open layout that lets Renée keep an eye on several students at once. There’s plenty of space for wheelchairs and extra volunteers working around the horses.
“We can have four horses crosstied next to each other plus one in the washrack, and I can keep track of everyone at the same time,” she explained. “I don’t have to worry about horses passing each other when it’s time to go out.”
Another major improvement came with the newly leveled cement floors. In the old barn, the students walked on the dirt floors—ideal for horses but challenging for many Freedom Hills students who struggle with balance and mobility issues. The center columns that bumped students’ knees in the old ring now suspend crossties in the new barn and give students something to hold on to in the open space.
Plenty of other useful amenities—like a pair of washracks with hot water, a spacious, pine-walled tackroom, a huge bathroom with a shower and a full kitchen—make life around the stable easier for everyone. Renée has a gorgeous new office that serves as headquarters for her many fundraising efforts.
Although Renée admitted that she’s had to make minor changes in the stable since coming home—she’s moved the wheelchair ramp into the indoor arena, for example, and tweaked the layout of the tackroom—the new stable is much more accessible to the students.
She’s also had to rearrange her paddocks, as her new house lies in what had been her mares’ field. Gorgeous new fencing snakes through the property.
“Moving the house has worked out well,” said Luther. “I’m doing better pasture management now, and I’m closer to the barn.”
One of the best upgrades didn’t even make the final edit into the show: the new therapy room, well-stocked with weights, exercise balls and plenty of equipment for the two physical therapists who work with students at Freedom Hills.
Effects Of The Transformation
But just as important as the revamped facility, the show has brought tremendous publicity to the Freedom Hills program and to therapeutic riding in general. Even before the show aired on Jan. 20, donations have come pouring in from across the country, and Renée’s phone has been ringing off the hook.
“I had to ask my assistant to start screening my calls,” she said with a laugh. “I have so many calls, people who want to help, people who want to take lessons, people who want to give me horses. Just today I got someone who wants to give me their dog. It’s been crazy around here.”
Renée’s home and barn have been transformed into a virtual open house in order to accommodate the legions of well wishers who have been stopping by to see the new facility. But through it all, Renée has been gracious and grateful. She has nothing but praise and thanks for the show, the builders and the volunteers.
The only moment she doubted the project was the day before the door knock. Renée had spent the month leading up to the show on and off the phone with producers. She and her children had packed suitcases for a possible trip to a mystery destination, and she’d sent the dogs and cats to the kennel for the week. Most importantly, Renée had made all the arrangements to send two dozen horses to friends’ farms for the week and called in every favor she could to make sure her animals would all receive the care they needed—just in case her family was selected.
“On Saturday, I was in the feed room, packing up grain and supplements and making lists for each of the horses,” she recalled. “At one point I looked at one of my friends and said, ‘This might be the stupidest thing I’ve ever done. If we don’t win this all would have been a waste of time.”
Renée never found out who initially nominated her for the show, but she remains eternally grateful to everyone who helped. To show her thanks for the life-changing gift, Renée and her family pitched in during an “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” build in Delaware in February, helping to bring goodwill to another family.
Clips of the show, which originally aired on January 20, can be viewed http://abc.go.com/ primetime/xtremehome. A list of many of the generous donors who contributed goods or services to the equestrian project can be viewed at http://www.paulrisk.com/Extreme_Home_Make