Jerral Hancock is somewhat of a local celebrity in his Mojave Desert town of Lancaster, Calif. He is asked to cut ribbons at city events and waves to the crowds in parades. But Hancock is also a wounded Iraq War veteran, riddled with burns on his body. He is missing an arm, and the remaining one functions poorly.
Although locally celebrated, Hancock is far from living like a hero. He shared a mobile home with his parents and two young children, and it was difficult for him to get his wheelchair through the halls of the cramped quarters.
Hancock told the Denver Post that being stuck in his mobile home for half a year when the handicapped-accessible van broke down was "like being in prison."
But six months ago, the high school seniors in Jamie Goodreau's U.S. history class at Lancaster High School decided that their end-of-the-year project would be to build Hancock a brand-new, handicapped-accessible home. Goodreau's classes have been honoring veterans at the end of the year for the last 15 years, but this was something much different, much bigger.
They were introduced to Hancock when he came in to speak to their class.
"He is feisty," Goodreau said. "He's got a very warrior spirit. He's a very real, down to earth individual."
Her students were touched by his personality and his story. They knew that they wanted to help him in a big way.
"They were moved by the fact that he was a dad, and that he was a very loving dad," Goodreau said. "They were touched by him and his children and the extent of sacrifice he has given to his country. I think the biggest thing was not the recognition of how severely injured he is, but how he is handling the injuries that motivated and inspired them."
The students have just closed escrow on a $264,000 property, and blueprints have been drawn up for the house that the students plan to rebuild, making it wheelchair accessible by Dec. 1, ideally in time for the holidays.
The students started raising funds right away, said Goodreau, with the goal of reaching $50,000 by September. They raised $80,000 by that time by selling T-shirts and other items, holding yard sales and pizza parties.
Goodreau said there were some large donations, and companies in the valley really "stepped up," but her students wanted this to be a grassroots effort that would bring people together in the cause.
They posted a list of donors, organized by rank on a website where people who want to can donate.
Shocked and impressed by the feat, the town got involved and helped with the project. Town stores and suppliers began to provide their services for free or for a reduced price. An architectural firm donated its time to provide the blueprints. Real estate agent Charla Abbott mortgaged the home, cut her fees and waived her commission.
"Coldwall Banker Hartwig waved their fees immediately when they heard Jerral's story - it was a group effort," Abbott said. "Everyone I talked to, when I told them Jerral's story, they said, 'What can I do?' No one turned away."
The property wasn't originally offered for sale through Veterans Affairs Home Loan financing, because it needed repairs. A local contractor replaced the sanitation septic system for free, to free up VA financing.
Abbott said that all the things on the family's dream checklist came true in this home: Hancock wanted a man cave, which is what the detached garage will become. His daughter wanted a two-story house, and this property has an upstairs loft/playroom. They all wanted chickens, and the house sits on an acreage that will allow them to get chickens.
"The smallest thing can do so much for a family," Abbott said. "We always say, 'What can we do?' This fundraiser just kept going and getting bigger, like a wildfire. I hope people see that and remember that they can do something."
It was May 29, 2007, Hancock's 21st birthday, when an explosive device hit his tank as he drove through the streets of Baghdad, and blew a hole through the hard exterior, setting it ablaze. His legs were paralyzed when a piece of shrapnel lodged his spine, and he was stuck in the tank as his body endured severe burns.
After returning from war, his wife left him and his two children: a 9-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter.
"We didn't feel like we were doing this for him," Goodreau said. "In our minds, in our hearts, he's already paid for this and we are just his legs. He is big on providing for his family and his kids, and we are just providing his efforts to do that, we are his boots on the ground."
"The experience has been a crazy ride," Hancock said. "I'm very honored that the students gave up three to four days a week, up to 30 hours volunteering for me. It has turned into a small family, and every student has grown and learned a lot since we met in June."