Editor’s Note: Everybody has a story. GG’s House is a three-part series that tells the story of one woman, Irene “GG” Alexander, who has spent her life caring for her family, children from her neighborhood, and anyone in need of a helping hand. In 2020, her family was marred by death and violence. Now the Madison community is giving back to her in a big way. Here are the two previous stories in the series: GG’s House, Part 1: A Murder, a Photo, And a Family Shattered and GG’s House, Part 2: Her Life Is One of Giving.
The final hours of Irene “GG” Alexander’s home makeover project rival the frenzied ending of any HGTV remodeling show. Most everybody in the house is in a panic, the collective mood running somewhere along the lines of, “Are we going to finish this on time?”
At 9:45 a.m. on Dec.18, with the big reveal scheduled for 11:11 a.m., the 1,100-square-foot house is filled with contractors and volunteers. A crew is in the kitchen installing a sink disposal, another is installing carpet on the basement stairs, and an interior designer is doing her best to stay out of everyone’s way while hanging up framed photos of GG’s family.
“The installer never showed up this morning,” says Carmen Cortreras, who owns TC Carpet Care, a Madison-based family business with her sister, Sandra. The sisters donated $20,000 in supplies and labor to the renovation. “I called one of our crews and said, ‘I don’t care what you are doing right now. Drop everything and get over here, now!’”
Michael Johnson, the president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County, keeps the crew mindful of the fast-approaching deadline.
“Thirty minutes. Twenty minutes. We only have 20 minutes left,” Johnson shouts as he heads outside to chip ice chunks off the back porch.
As Melanie Hawk, who owns ACME Household Services with husband Dan, waits for the disposal to be installed, she lines up the microwave, glass containers, coffee cups, and coffeemaker on a living room table. As soon as the installation is completed, she rushes in and arranges the items on the kitchen counters.
Above her face mask, Melanie’s eyes look tired. She is drained, running on only four hours of sleep.
“It has been chaotic,” says Melanie. “There was a lot we were doing and then there was a lot that we added to the project. We had a deadline and it is about getting the job done. It’ll be done to the wire, but it’ll be done. What you put into a project like this, is nothing compared to the feeling you get back.”
The remodeling of GG’s Madison house began Dec. 1, less than a month after her husband, Patrick Alexander, a man she had shared more than 50 years of her life with, passed away Nov. 9. His passing was the family’s fifth loss of the year, coming in quick succession to GG’s brother’s death on Labor Day, and the loss of her great-granddaughter, 11-year-old Anisa Scott, to gun violence on Aug. 13.
Johnson and Jenny Meicher Santek, board chair of the Boys & Girls Club, have teamed up during the holidays in recent years on projects to benefit Dane County residents. This year, GG’s story caught their attention.
The Hawks also have previously partnered with Johnson on community give-back projects. Once Johnson put out an ask for volunteers and donations on Facebook, the Hawks and dozens of community businesses and volunteers responded.
“It’s about $100,000 of in-kind support that she’s receiving,” Johnson says. “To be able to pay it forward for an elder in our community is phenomenal. It feels good to the soul. It’s what the spirit of Christmas is all about.”
By the time GG and her family pull up in the driveway, her home is finished.
“I Love It. I Love It.”
GG, 67, is the first to walk inside. She is followed by her daughter Lorene Gomez, 48, Lorene’s 29-year-old daughter Ashley Rios, and Rios’ 6-year-old daughter, Anija Ragland.
The four generations of women who at one time or another have called GG’s house their home share collective moments of silent disbelief. It is the 6-year-old who first breaks the silence.
“I love it. I love it,” Anija says as she jumps up and down in the living room, before breaking away from her relatives and the pack of TV cameras tracking her great-grandma’s every move.
Prior to the home makeover, Anija didn’t have a room of her own at GG’s house. What awaits her, now, on the other side of a sliding barn door that separates her from her mom’s room, is a total transformation of what used to be a screened-in porch.
New windows from Pella, flooring from JDC Custom Homes, furniture from A-1 Furniture, and an interior design from Silver Leaf Design, have transformed the porch into a princess bedroom.
“I love it! I love it,” she shouts again. “I’ve got my home desk! For school!!” Look, it’s a princess crown. And I have my own lamp, wait two lamps!”
Little remains from what used to be inside the home except what is most important: the memories. Framed photos of Anisa Scott can be found in nearly every room. Old studio-portrait photos of GG and Patrick now adorn the walls. Lorene breaks down crying as she sees two framed photos of Anisa on a hallway wall.
“This is all too much,” she says. “It is beautiful.”
Prior to the remodel, there were four people sleeping in the two-bedroom house. Now, spaces like the sun porch and basement that were somewhat functioning as bedrooms are now distinctly bedrooms designed for each household member. Everyone has their own space. The three women have bedrooms upstairs, and the basement has been transformed into a room for GG’s grandson, Jovani Gomez.
GG has arthritis, making it difficult for her to go up and down stairs. For that reason, when Johnson asked her what she would like as part of the remodel, GG requested a washer-dryer unit on the first floor and a shower that was easier to access. Thanks to McKenzie Apartment Co. donating a stackable washer-dryer unit, and TC Carpet, Dave Jones Plumbing, and Ferguson, the upstairs bathroom was gutted and replaced with a walk-in shower.
“My heart has been so heavy, filled with so much sorrow, pain,” GG says as she pauses in her living room after touring her remodeled home. “To see so many people come out to help us? I will not remember names, but just know I am thinking about you. Everything you’ve done. This is just so big. It is far more than I could have ever expected. I’m so grateful and so appreciative.”
“We love ya,” a group of family and friends begin telling her.
“I love all of you, too,” she says.
Paying It Forward
Everything about the Madison airport is familiar to Lorene.
Since Anisa’s death in August, she has flown 12 times, nearly weekly, between Madison and her home in Atlanta. Too often, it has been to attend services for relatives who have passed away. Other times, her daughter, Ashley Rios, is having a bad day and Lorene feels she needs to be there for her.
“I’m pretty sure the TSA people in Madison know me,” Lorene says, adding there are only two flights between Madison and Atlanta on Sundays, meaning she typically sees the same crew. “They’ve been seeing me, the button of Anisa, and the bracelets I always wear with her name on them for four months.”
On Dec. 16 when she lands—two days before the big remodel reveal for her mom—her heart and, in a sense, her checkbook, are full. Lorene is arriving with her own plan to pay it forward.
Surrounded by camera crews, reporters, friends, family, and volunteers who made the transformation of GG’s house possible, Lorene presents a surprise of her own.
Seated on the couch in the new living room, the always-present photo of Anisa between her and Anisa’s mom, Lorene presents a $10,000 check to the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County.
“I wish I could take this mask off so you could see the smile on my face,” Santek says as she accepts the donation. “This is so unexpected.”
Lorene says by word of mouth, reaching out to their employers and friends, she and her two brothers were able to raise the money without taking to social media or creating a gofundme.com page. They felt it was necessary to give back for everything the Madison community had done for their mom and how it had come together in the days following Anisa’s death.
“My pride and joy. My first grandbaby,” Lorene says, reaching out a hand to touch the photo of Anisa sitting beside her.
“We love you mom. We knew from the way you raised us that we had to do something,” Lorene says. “So thank you Madison. We wanted to give back, too.”
For her part, GG sits quietly, taking it all in.
“I’m so grateful for all of this. Words cannot express to you how I feel,” GG says. “I just wish my husband could have been here to see all this take place.”
Companies and individuals that donated to GG’s home renovation project include: ACME Household Services, TC Carpet Care, Silver Leaf Design, A-1 Furniture; Veridian Homes, JDC Custom Homes, Olson Toon Landscaping, Pinnow Electric, Ayres Painting, Home Depot, Target, Elite A/V Automation, Pella Windows, anonymous donor who replaced gutters and downspouts, Dave Jones Plumbing, Cardinal Heating and Air, Brothers Main, Ferguson, QBC countertops, McKenzie Apartment Co., Katie Martz with Odonata Woodwork, Martin Glass, the Gavinski family, KEBE Technology, Green for Life Environmental, and 75 people who donated items through a Target registry.
“Love is a verb, and when you are able to step up, especially at this time of the year, that is real love,” Dan Hawk says. “This project was love in action.”
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