A house for Johnny

Scores of hands work in unusual harmony on construction inspired by a dying boy's wish

December 19, 2007|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,Sun reporter

At the end of Sunset Lane, a large spray-painted sign points the way to "Johnny's House."

More than two dozen vans, pickup trucks and cars turned down that northern Baltimore County lane yesterday, heading to a slate-blue house tucked among the trees.

There, about 50 men in work boots measured, sawed and hammered, moving through clouds of dust. Women directed the action from an office, handling a seemingly endless stream of calls.

Miles away, in a hospital bed, a little boy lay dying.

"Johnny brought all of us together," said Mike Lopez, a contractor who, like many others, has been donating his time to work on the house in recent days. "I imagine in the time that he's been struggling he has touched thousands of lives. This is something that most of us are never going to forget."

Like many people working at the house, Lopez had never met 10-year-old John Rozema Jr., but he knew the little boy's story.

In March, Johnny, then a fourth-grader at Jacksonville Elementary School, was diagnosed as having Burkitt's lymphoma, a rare and extremely aggressive cancer. To care for him, his parents dropped everything, including a renovation and expansion of their home.

For months, the house sat unfinished - a labyrinth of wooden beams and unpainted drywall - while the family divided their time between a few habitable rooms in the house and the hospital.

Then, around Thanksgiving, doctors told the family the words that they had been dreading - Johnny was going to die.

The family took him to Disney World last week, a gift from the Make-A-Wish Foundation, but Johnny was too sick to go to the Magic Kingdom. The family, including Johnny's young sister and brother, flew back to Baltimore by air ambulance.

The boy told his family that he wanted to die at home, in the blue house in the woods.

That's when Cindy Norris, the mother of Johnny's cousin's girlfriend, and Tracy Bird, whose son befriended Johnny in kindergarten, took action.

"I was tired of crying about the situation and I thought, `I have to do something,'" Bird said.

Norris had been hearing about the house from her daughter, Heather, 23, and decided to see it for herself last week. Heather's boyfriend, Ben Heiser, and another cousin had been helping John Rozema Sr. on the construction at the house, but work had come to a standstill after Johnny's condition grew worse.

So Norris, who is recovering from surgery on both feet, decided to take on the project. A nurse and the mother of four children, including triplets, she is accustomed to stressful situations. The family hoped to bring Johnny home by Friday.

Norris, Bird and other women sent out a flood of e-mails asking for help. Soon electricians, plumbers, painters and general contractors showed up. Companies donated paint, carpeting and light fixtures. Agencies speeded permits. Strangers brought coffee and lunch for the workers or donated money at a Web site dedicated to "Johnny's Angels."

Yesterday morning, a swarm of men wielding power drills, measuring tapes and caulking guns worked in the front room of the house while dozens more labored upstairs.

Spanish-speaking workmen stood on stilts to spread spackle high on a wall. A 70-year-old Ukrainian native, who spoke almost no English, painted a bedroom upstairs.

Johnny's 7-year-old brother, Luke, wandered through, clutching an autographed football. His sister, Emily, a sixth-grader at Jacksonville Middle School, wore a crocheted hat as she helped her grandmothers examine stored furniture. A shaggy dog shuffled past the workers, looking bewildered.

Someone had taped a piece of posterboard to the door of the house with a quote from the biblical book of Habakkuk: "Look at the nations and watch, be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days you would not believe even if you were told."

Norris sat in the small space that was once the family's computer and television room. Stickers made from school pictures of Johnny and his siblings surrounded the monitor of the family computer, and flashcards with the words flower, they and live were scattered on a desk.

Norris sat behind a table with three cell phones, two landlines and a pair of walkie-talkies in front of her. She and Lopez, who is an owner of Legacy Restorations and has been working on the house full time the past few days, went over a list of 62 tasks that needed to be completed by Friday.

Through the morning, a constant stream of workers appeared with questions, and Norris rattled off most of the answers without consulting the sheets of notebook paper stacked around her.

Then Johnny's grandmother came to Norris' workspace with sad news. The little boy had taken a turn for the worse. His breathing was labored and doctors did not expect him to live long. The family and Norris rushed to the hospital.

Soon after they arrived, Johnny, the little boy who loved the Ravens and video games, and who inspired so many people he had never met, died.

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