Military widow surprised with free home

Sara Wood and her son were surprised by Dan Wallrath, left, during a Houston Texans football game this past season.

Story highlights

  • A military widow was recently given a free house by Operation Finally Home
  • The nonprofit was started by Dan Wallrath, one of the top 10 CNN Heroes of 2010
  • It builds mortgage-free homes for wounded troops and their families
  • Wallrath's goal, he said, is to build 100 new homes every year
CNN Hero Dan Wallrath is ramping up his efforts to build mortgage-free homes for U.S. troops wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.
His group, Operation Finally Home, has built 17 houses to date, and 19 more are under construction.
Just this month, the organization broke ground on its first home for a military widow.
CNN's Christie O'Reilly spoke with Wallrath, one of the top 10 CNN Heroes of 2010, about the unique way he and his group surprised the widow.
They also talked about a new film that reveals the hurdles Wallrath faced as the child of an alcoholic. "Deep in the Heart," starring Jon Gries and Val Kilmer, is a true story about the struggles and ultimate redemption of Wallrath's father, who has donated millions of dollars toward scholarships in Texas.
Below are excerpts from the interview.
Christie O'Reilly: Sara Wood, a widow from Houston, Texas, didn't know that you had selected her to receive a home. How did you surprise her with the news?
Dan Wallrath: We surprised her during halftime at a Houston Texans game.
We got there and we started talking to her, and she's telling us about her husband and how big of fans they were. He was buried in his dress blues, but underneath his dress blues he was buried in (wide receiver) Andre Johnson's jersey. We didn't even know it, and the Texans had no clue.
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O'Reilly: Wow. That must have made it that much more special. What was the moment of surprise like?
Wallrath: She just broke down, and it just tore me out. Tears just started flowing from everybody.
I tell you, it was amazing. When we gave the home away, you could hear a pin drop in the stadium. And afterward, I knew several people all around in the stadium in different places, and they called me (and said) everybody was crying. So that was really a neat, neat deal.
She had just lost Scott a couple weeks before we gave her the home. And it was just so emotional because she was just trying to get her life together. ... We broke ground on the house, and it's moving right along.
O'Reilly: I understand you also have a home delivery planned for Memorial Day weekend?
Wallrath: It is for Shaun Meadows. He's a double amputee. He was with Air Force Special Services. He's just a great young man. He's married, got one little boy. I tell you this guy's amazing. He doesn't let anything hold him back.
When he was in service, he had bought some property in Tennessee and he was planning on building a home there. But it was becoming harder and harder because of his disability. So we came along and surprised him. He already had his (architectural) plans, so we're building his dream home.
O'Reilly: What are some of the challenges you'll face as your organization expands this year?
Wallrath: We're looking at doubling (the number of homes) by the end of this year. It looks like we're on track. But we're still looking for monetary contributions and also materials.
We've developed new relationships with (a flooring company) this year; they furnish all the flooring, wood, tile, carpet and things like that for all our homes. These relationships make it easier and easier for us to put these homes together.
O'Reilly: Philanthropy is in your family, and that's part of what the film "Deep in the Heart" touches upon. What did you get from your dad when it comes to giving back?
Wallrath: I guess it's just the spirit of, once you reach your goals or ... once you are blessed with certain things, you're (not) supposed to hold on to it. I think God gives you things to help others.
O'Reilly: Still, the film focuses on some difficult issues. How have you seen it affect audiences?
Wallrath: The movie touches so many lives because the movie is about our family, but mostly about Dad and his struggle with alcoholism. He quit drinking and became successful and started giving back. But along that path, you have children of alcoholics -- myself, my sisters and brothers -- and what they go through. Then you have a spouse of an alcoholic and what she goes through dealing with the alcoholism. Then you have the alcoholic himself; you see what struggles he has to overcome, that demon.
And then at the same time, I had a sister (who), when she was 30 and had a 2-year-old son, died of cancer. And so this is all in the movie.
I've had so many people come up to me, and they had a sister or brother or someone die of cancer and the movie affected them because they were thinking of that. People come up to me that were children of alcoholics and say: "Hey, that was my life except for the getting rich part. The bad part -- that was my part." So it really affects a lot of people. ...
Usually when you have abuse and alcoholism and things like that, it passes from one generation to another. But in our family it didn't. And I'm so proud of my brother and sisters that that didn't go on.
O'Reilly: What do you hope people will take away from the film?
Wallrath: When I was in the position, I just didn't think there was any hope. ... I just want them to realize -- the kids that see this movie and they have parents like that -- (that) if they can just have faith in God and just keep doing the right things and hang in there, that everything can be OK. And just because you start out life that way doesn't mean you have to end life that way.
O'Reilly: You are evidence of that. Has Operation Finally Home become what you'd hoped?
Wallrath: Yes, it really has. I guess when we first started, I had no idea that we'd be where we're at today. As we grow, I can see where our goal of building 100 homes every year is getting closer and closer. I think we're about three years away from hitting that goal, maybe less. That'd be amazing.
There are just so many of those young families out there that need our help, and we're going as fast as we can.