Show business meets philanthropy in the Fresno area this week as the ABC reality television series "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" comes to town, putting thousands of volunteers -- and one lucky family -- in an international spotlight.
The series -- known for its "Move that bus!" catchphrase -- is a home-improvement show that races against time. Designers, contractors and volunteers demolish and rebuild a home for a carefully chosen family in less than a week. The show has built 137 homes since 2003, for families from Hurricane Katrina-ravished New Orleans to a farm outside Bakersfield.
Construction of house No. 138 begins here Thursday when the show's carpenter-turned-TV host and star Ty Pennington tells one local family it has been chosen for the makeover. The identity of that family is a closely guarded secret until Thursday.
For now, the more than 3,500 volunteers are waiting to go to work. And once the building begins, thousands more spectators are expected to stop by the construction site to see for themselves what seems like an impossible construction job.
Local builder DeYoung Properties -- which, like all other participating companies, donated its services -- will oversee all aspects of the show including the demolition of the family's existing home Saturday and work on the new home around the clock until turning over the keys Jan. 15.
The reality show aims not to just give away a new home. Producers scrutinize thousands of applications to look for heroes, including people who have devoted themselves to the help or care of others.
Viewers have been attracted to the emotional stories of the recipients. The show is a consistent ratings success for ABC. The series was one of the top 20 shows for past year. It ranked No. 1 in its 8 p.m. Sunday time period.
Those rankings, which determine advertising rates, mean the show is a moneymaker for ABC, as well. And production costs for the show are below average because all the materials and labor are donated.
The Fresno episode is scheduled to air in March. Because the series is seen in 69 other countries, the potential viewing audience is more than 1 billion.
The series earns its "Extreme" name because many of the new houses are designed to improve the lives of families with special needs, such as air filters for a sick child or textured walls for a blind man.
Executive producer Conrad Ricketts told a crowd of volunteers, contractors and supporters at St. Anthony School gymnasium Monday that they were about "to change lives."
The most obvious change comes for the family chosen to get the new home. But the show also changes the lives of those who have stepped up to volunteer everything from goods to their time, Ricketts said.
"We are always asked why people who have never volunteered before will volunteer to be part of this show," Ricketts said. "I think people volunteer because the show casts such a bright light on the community."
Local charities that depend on volunteers said they don't worry the show will take away from their efforts.
"The same type of people volunteering and giving of their heart would be the same people who come back to us" after the home-makeover project is completed, said Kelly Lilles, development director of Catholic Charities in Fresno. "A week of their time -- what a gift."
"It doesn't take away," agreed the Rev. Larry Arce, executive director of the Fresno Rescue Mission. "It enhances our ability to be able to help. Bringing all these volunteers and organizations together for one purpose and one cause -- to help a family fulfill a dream -- shows unity, purpose and direction. Everything is positive; it's bringing the community together. And that's what we're all about."
The filming also will be a learning opportunity for some. The Construction Management Program in Fresno State's Lyles College of Engineering will supply a dozen student volunteers.
Dr. Louis Gysler, the engineering program coordinator, said the show's compressed time frame provides an intensive learning experience that fits into the goal of combining theoretical and practical training for students.
News reports suggest happy endings for the majority of families rewarded with a new home from the show.
In a few cases, families needed help paying higher property taxes that resulted from the dramatic improvement of their homes.
No "Extreme Makeover" family has lost its home, Ricketts said.