Steps2Hope will turn its attention to helping LaFayette High School student Austin Whitten, who was paralyzed last summer after breaking his neck after he belly flopped into a pool. Organizer Mark Wilson said the 16-year-old doesn't need a new home but does need help in other ways. Whitten's family helped work on the new home built this week for U.S. Army Spc. Andrew Smith. Once the details are worked out, volunteers will trade out their "Team Andrew" shirts for "Team Austin" shirts.
Last year, Andrew Smith spent Independence Day on the White House lawn.
Just a few months after being badly wounded while serving in Afghanistan, he was unable to eat or walk.
A lot has changed since then.
And in just a year, Smith has gone from sitting in his wheelchair in the Capitol to standing in his own home in Apison.
"The idea of walking into our own home wasn't even in our minds," he said Thursday.
On a dreary July Fourth, Smith and his wife Tori got the keys to their new 3,000 square-foot home, which was built in just a week by the hands of more than 1,100 volunteers.
A specialist in the U.S. Army, Smith lost both his legs below the knee in March 2012 after stepping on an improvised explosive device while on his first foot patrol in Afghanistan. He's spent much time recovering at Walter Reed National Medical Center near Washington, D.C.
Local businessman and family friend Mark Wilson launched the nonprofit Steps2Hope and took on the Smith home as its first project. He said the whirlwind home build wouldn't have been possible without the help of donors and volunteers, some of whom worked near round-the-clock hours to get the home finished.
"What you have to know is we feel like we made 1,100 new friends this week," Wilson said at a brief ceremony at Hullander Farm on Thursday. "It's been the most rewarding thing we've ever done."
After taking a stretch SUV limo up their flag-lined driveway, the Smiths paused on the front porch to bow their heads to give thanks and pray.
Inside, the two reveled in all of the custom details of the new single-story home. The kitchen cabinets are set wide apart to allow ample clearance for Andrew's wheelchair. The expansive master bathroom includes a huge walk-in shower with custom-mounted knobs for easy access.
"It's not just pretty. It's really functional," Wilson said.
The home also included a surprise addition: Chattanooga Police SWAT team members helped put together a backyard shooting range, which Andrew and Tori quickly christened by firing off several rounds on an assault rifle.
The two spent much of Thursday surrounded by reporters, volunteers, family members and friends. They said it still hadn't sunk in that the house was theirs.
"We knew it would be amazing and incredible with the people involved," Andrew Smith said. "But we didn't think it would be anything like this."
Relatives will stay in the new home until the Smiths are able to move back to Chattanooga full-time. They won't be back from Washington until December at the earliest as Andrew is still on active duty service and must complete a lengthy process before returning to civilian life.
But the two said they are grateful to have a home to call their own. Until now they've only shared a hospital room.
"This is amazing, especially for our first home," Tori Smith said. "First and last home."
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249.
Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...