James T. Johnson, badly wounded in Iraq, his family displaced by Hurricane Rita, and caring for his leukemia-stricken daughter, knew things could still go downhill.
"We try to keep a positive attitude all the time," he said. "This is tough now, but it is going to get better, and it can always get worse."
Then he got a call about a school he had never heard of 1,400 miles away. The Western Center for Technical Studies in Limerick, Pa., wanted to help a hurricane victim.
So it was going to build him a house.
Things were getting better.
"It was all a done deal before I found out about it," said Johnson, 29.
That was in 2006. The students set to work, and now the home is almost completed. One story, 1,500 square feet, two baths, three bedrooms.
And one problem. The house is in Pennsylvania. The Johnson family is in Lake Charles, La.
Now, the Montgomery County school needs help: either donated trucks to move the two-piece modular "House of Heroes," or about $20,000 to pay for transportation and a crane.
"It is going down no matter what," said student Geoff Alderfer, 18, of Upper Perkiomen, who has been on the job since the fall semester.
Students did all of the work, with the help of instructors Stephen M. Toroney and Stephen Antrim.
"You don't get much more hands-on than this," Toroney said.
Built with donated materials, the home has recessed lighting, special hurricane-resistant windows, heating and air conditioning, a laundry room, the latest technology in plumbing and electric, and gray vinyl siding and red shutters.
"This is the first time I have built a house," observed English Williams, 18, a senior.
For years, the school has taken students from Pottsgrove, Spring Ford and Upper Perkiomen High Schools and turned them into builders of high-quality homes.
Johnson's is the 12th modular home built by the junior and senior classes. Once, the students built a 4,500-square-foot house on a lot near the school that sold for $420,000. It turned "a little bit of a profit for the school," after materials and other costs were covered, Toroney said.
In 2005, while students were busy building homes, Staff Sgt. Johnson was patrolling Baghdad with the Louisiana Army National Guard.
On Jan. 10, 2005, he was in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle when a "huge roadside bomb" killed two of the eight-member crew and wounded four.
Along with severe leg, spinal and head injuries, Johnson suffered burns to his lungs and airway.
Around the same time, his daughter, Gracie, was undergoing chemotherapy at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston.
While Johnson was undergoing months of medical treatment in San Antonio, Texas, his family members had to leave their rented home in Lake Charles after Hurricane Rita knocked out the power and water.
They bought a mobile home, but mold and undetected storm damage forced them to move out.
At the Western Center, school board members were "kicking around ideas" on how to help victims of the hurricanes that struck the Gulf Coast, recalled Gordon Whitlock, the chairman of the committee that oversees the school's operations.
They contacted the governor's office in Louisiana, which put them in touch with the National Guard, which gave them Johnson's name.
"The time and energy they are putting into the project itself blows me away," Johnson said. "They won't find anyone who is more appreciative of their kindness and generosity and selfless service than our family."
Johnson said he "is getting around surprisingly well for the number of injuries and how serious they were."
The family members have been monitoring the construction progress on the school's Web site and planning how to decorate the house. They are now living in an apartment in Lake Charles, where Johnson is the director of education outreach for the Louisiana Guard.
The family bought the land for the house outside the Lake Charles city limits on a dead-end street surrounded by farmland.
"It is going to fit us very well," said Johnson, who also paid to have the foundation prepared. "Gracie will have a lot of room to play."
At the end of May, about 30 Montgomery County students plan to accompany the house, now in two large, rectangular pieces, to its new location. It will take them about a week to join the halves and add the finishing touches. During that time, they will be housed at Trinity Baptist Church in Lake Charles.
Johnson also is doing some planning of his own for the students who have reached out to help his family.
"Hopefully, some cool stuff will be happening for them," Johnson said. Details are a surprise, he said.