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Reality television comes to Clayton County

By Greg Gelpi

Barricaded streets shrouded a massive operation to demolish a home in Lake City while its former inhabitants vacationed in Disney World Tuesday.

Hundreds of volunteers endured sub-freezing temperatures to participate in ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," a reality television show that renovates homes of families in need of home repair and in this case replaces the house.

The Harpers, who live in the Ahyoka Drive home, endured continual problems with a septic tank that backed into the house each time it rained, forcing the family to sleep in a van in the driveway. The sewage and mold-infested home will be replaced on the same lot with an English Country-style home with more than 5,000 square feet of living space.

Surprising the family with the news Sunday, the television show sent the family on the trip, while crews set to work on the house, first removing the problem septic tank and then leveling the house with bulldozers.

When the Harpers return this Sunday, they will find a new home to go along with their new septic tank. The Harpers, Patricia and Milton and their three children, Darius, LaVaughn and Mister, ranging in ages from 8 to 17, moved to Lake City several years ago from a New York public housing project and spent their life savings trying to repair the house.

"It was almost unlivable with about 3 or 4 feet of raw sewage and things growing in the basement," said Shalon Travis, Patricia Harper's sister-in-law. "Wow. We were just shocked (to learn of the extreme makeover). It was just a blessing from God."

Conditions of the house are particularly hard on Mister, the youngest child, who suffers from allergies that are aggravated by the mold and problematic septic tank.

"Sometimes his eyes were so swollen that he couldn't open them in the morning," Travis said.

Travis and staff of the television show are hush on the details of the project, waiting to surprise the Harper family when they return.

"I think they're a very worthy family," said Janie Bishop, whose grandson plays basketball at Forest Park High School with Darius Harper. "I think it is awesome. I think it is simply awesome."

Bishop, a fan of the television show, said members of the show "should be renamed God's angels" for all of the work they do to help others.

"It's not just a makeover of the house," she said. "It's a makeover of the whole family."

Neighbors who lived only houses apart stood side by side to watch the progress in the pre-dawn hours Tuesday.

"They just haven't had luck with that house," Jimmy Dudley said. "When this is all over this is just going to make us all closer."

Lucky Hollins agreed, adding that the Harper's lawn only had patches of grass before because septic tank work caused the yard to frequently be torn apart.

The Clayton County Water Authority worked with the television program to "expedite what is normally a lengthy process" of tying into the county sewer system, Keith Watkins, water authority engineering coordinator, said.

"Septic systems, as they are aware with this one, have the possibility of failing," Watkins said. "If you have to repair it, it can be quite costly."

If the septic tank can't handle the flow of water, then it backs into the house, he said. Tying in with the county sewer system is a "more fool-proof system."

"Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" partnered with Atlanta-based Beazer Homes USA, a national home builder, to design and construct the house and is working with several contractors and hundreds of volunteers to tackle the project.