October 2010 Archives

makeover_house.JPGHere's an article I wrote for State College Magazine.

Extreme Work, Extreme Reward

September 2010

By: Kimberly Del Bright

Reality TV Finds a Local Interior Designer Who Finds Joy in Helping Others Makeover House

Interior designer Kate Kissell is on the phone, searching for something on which she can take notes. That scrap of blackout lining and a permanent marker will have to do--she needs to get this down. It's not every day you get a call from a television producer wanting to feature your work.

On the other end of the line is Ann Cummings, a producer with the ABC reality TV show "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," and she's looking for a team leader for an upcoming episode. The show, which airs locally on Sunday nights, is a rags-to-riches American story of hope that features host Ty Pennington and a celebrity design team including Tracy Hutson and Paul DiMeo.

The show selects a struggling family, sends them on vacation and then moves in a community of volunteers who work frantically to replace their existing home with a brand new one. The home is then stuffed with new furnishings and accessories, right down to the fresh fruit bowl and new clothes in the closets, and the whole transformation is accomplished in 106 hours. Tears flow and hugs abound at the end of each episode as the family returns and tours their new home.

Kissell, who owns Picadilly Interiors in State College, was recommended by Margie Nance, a design instructor in Charlotte, N.C., Cummings often turns to for suggestions. Cummings told Nance she needed someone in Pennsylvania with extensive knowledge of fabrication and design. "I've got the perfect person. This girl knows it all," Nance said.  

Fast-forward an hour, and Kissell is on the phone with Cummings, struggling with that scrap of curtain lining. Cummings emphasized the big undertaking she was asking of Kissell, but that the most important thing is the job gets done with a positive attitude. "It has to be fun, and if it's not, call me, and we'll fix it," Cummings told her. That struck a chord with Kissell, who is connected to her church. "Just like mission work--where's your heart in this? If you're not going to have a good time with it, then move out of the way, and let someone else do it," Kissell says.

It wasn't hard for Kissell to find her heart in the work. Cummings asked her to coordinate the soft coverings--pillows, quilts, curtains and some upholstery--for the interior of a home the show intended to build in Berks County for a young widow and her 18-month-old daughter. Their story would tug on even the most hardened of hearts: Trisha and Andy Urban were refurbishing their decrepit, 300-year-old cabin in Hamburg and awaiting the birth of their first child in early 2009. When Trisha went into labor on Feb. 4, Andy went out to check on the family's goats and horses before taking her to the hospital. But when he didn't return from the barn, Trisha found him by the family's front gate; he had died of a massive heart attack brought on by a congenital heart defect. Andy, who didn't have health insurance because the defect was considered a pre-existing condition, had skipped an appointment with his cardiologist the week before for fear of pushing the family deeper into debt.

Later that day, Trisha gave birth to Cora. Mounting debt and increasing responsibilities put a stop to the home renovations, although a community effort last year did raise enough funds for Trisha to buy the house back from Andy's estate, since he died without a will in place.

In June, that community effort manifested into something much more extreme when show producers called local volunteers to let them know the Urban house had been chosen for "Extreme Makeover," and a few months later, Kissell was there to see it from behind the scenes.  

After the phone call, Kissell set to work getting ready for her trip to Berks County. Cummings charged her with finding a crew of fabricators and upholsterers and sources for fabrics, hardware and supplies. Finding sources willing to donate or heavily discount the materials is essential to paying for the project, which is organized by a local group under the "Extreme Makeover" umbrella--in the Urbans' case, the Home Builders Association of Berks County took the fundraising lead. Two days before the reveal of the home to the family, spokesman Jeff Woytovich said enough money had been raised to ensure Trisha would have the same mortgage she had prior to the project.

"Extreme Makeover" has been criticized in the past for building excessively lavish homes that put financial burdens on the recipients. The Urban family home was purposely modestly sized at 2,700 square feet and emphasized a whimsical fairytale theme over the extravagant trappings of homes of past seasons that had such features as bowling alleys and pools--although the family goats in this project did receive their own "goat hotel." Instead, the Urban home featured a fence and a fireplace mantel made from repurposed cherry wood from the original house, and according to associate producer Josh Ziln, more than one third of the power for the house will be generated from the attractive stone-and-metal wind turbine gracing the front lawn, and additional power will be supplied through solar panels in the front yard.

Woytovich says Urban will also have access to financial consulting services for the next year to ensure her financial stability.

After the Urbans were ambushed at a carnival by Ty Pennington on July 29, the 3,000 volunteers it took to build their house got to work. Kissell and her team left State College early on Aug. 4 to begin the day-and-a-half they had to work before the big reveal at 2 p.m. Aug. 5. By the time they arrived, another local volunteer, Scott Burk of Scott's Landscaping in Centre Hall, had finished grading the site and building a patio and the walkways around the home with his own team. Kissell's group passed the hours on the drive to the site by putting the finishing touches by hand to the bedcovers they began just a few days before in her studio above her husband's motorcycle business.

First-string on Kissell's volunteer team was her sister Amy McNamara, owner of Logue McNamara Interiors in Montoursville. As two of 10 children raised in rural Montoursville, they grew up amusing themselves. "With a mother who is an artist and a dad who is an engineer, we kids were always making stuff. We could have been either fighting with each other or doing something constructive," Kissell says. On the site, the sisters had a finely tuned choreography from years of working together that helped solve the problems they encountered.

And although the Urban home was the second fastest build throughout the eight seasons since "Extreme Makeover" began, there were problems; anyone who has built or participated in the construction of a house can relate. Building and decorating a house in one week with all volunteers is a challenge. Having the design process orchestrated primarily by young, junior designers made the job more difficult for Kissell's team.

Although Pennington, Hutson and DiMeo, along with guest designer Leigh Anne Tuohy (made famous when Sandra Bullock played her in "The Blind Side") dropped by the site, the primary work and direction to the volunteers is handled by the junior teams.

Kissell's team made window panels, shades, pillows, quilts, throws, cushions and chairs. As the build progressed, measurements changed or were unavailable, and exact information was rare, making clever adjustments and improvisations necessary. Kissell was a natural in the chaos of "Extreme Makeover"; she is a woman who has spent most of her adult life developing flexibility by raising five children. She makes mental math and abstract spatial concepts seem like child's play. "For us, it's like a pregnancy with lots of unknowns," Kissell says of her calm, go-with-the-flow attitude once she got to the house site. "But the designers have been doing this, and they know it's all going to come together."

You might have challenged her on that point, had you seen the build site. Anyone who's ever seen an ant farm can appreciate what the scene looked like. Blue-shirted volunteers moved in and out of the house with vigor while the show's security team guarded the perimeter in a manner that even the White House party-crashers would have had a hard time breaching. The show's producers make sure no one but those working on the project sees the interior of the house before the nation does when the show airs, which, at press time, was set for either Sept. 26 or sometime in October. The members of Kissell's team are some of the privileged few. "I brought my whole team into the house because they had worked so hard. I owed it to them," she says.

On the day of the reveal, Kissell returned to the site to complete the finishing touches. Although it was only several hours before the Urbans were scheduled to return from their Disney World vacation, the activity level was still frantic. Three times calls went out for "quiet," as film crews taped artificially arranged conversations between celebrity designers Tuohy and Hutson. Outside, Pennington waved to an empty limo as the film crew captured the footage, and onlookers, bused in for the duration of the build, cheered wildly, even if it was at nothing. In the yard, DiMeo placed--and replaced, several times over--a pair of decorative, flower-filled rain boots next to the new gazebo until the camera crew had it just right. The show's signature line, "move that bus," took on new meaning as the producers directed it back and forth at least five times to get it timed and located exactly right. In truth, the only footage that isn't at least in part contrived is the actual arrival and reaction of the family.   

But the fascination with "reality" TV is part of our culture. Most of us realize our emotions are being manipulated, and we are aware that what we see isn't entirely real, but maybe that doesn't matter in the end. "I got the most pleasure from watching such a deserving family get this," Kissell says. "They had such dignity. It's the heart and soul of 'Extreme Makeover,' and it is a good thing. It's like the period at the end of a sentence." • SCM

A Centre Region Affair

Scott Burk likes to say it was a "former" friend who got him involved with the "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" house in Berks County.
He's joking of course. The old college buddy who called and asked for his help is still a buddy. But it was a huge request: come, bring five of your employees from Scott's Landscaping in Centre Hall, and in 24 hours grade the home site and install all the hardscapes--a patio and front and back walkways. "The landscape project would have easily been a three- to four-week project, depending on how many people you had on the job," Burk says. "He knew he needed someone who could come in, get it done and get out." The Centre Hall team fit the bill, and Burk jumped into action.

Little did he know that 24-hour time frame would be cut down to 12 hours by the time the team arrived Aug. 2--and that his 12 hours would be in the dark. After spending the day at a nursery workshop in Philadelphia, Burk arrived at the Hamburg site at 8 p.m. By that time, the landscape plans had already been reconfigured from what Burk was expecting, but they got to work--aided by giant floodlights that illuminated the site overnight--and cleared out by 8 a.m. the next day.

Burk's group is one of three local businesses called into service on the "Extreme Makeover" home. In addition to a team headed by Kate Kissell of State College, which created the soft coverings for the interior, the folks at Lezzer Lumber in Curwensville supplied the trusses for the home's whimsical roofline.

Since he returned to the Centre region, Burk says folks have been asking if his crew will end up on TV. "Yeah, you'll probably be on for a couple of seconds, and it'll be the back of our heads," he tells them. "But that's not what it's about. It's about helping somebody. It was a great experience."

Chumbawamba 4.jpg
This week, a student wrote the following e-mail to me:

The polishing of my résumé that you helped with back before the career fair may be about to pay off!  It looks like I will be having two, one-hour interviews with the engineering team on Thursday.  What advice can you offer to get me through these interviews?  So far the only information they have is my résumé and my major.

I love this question, and because I've been hearing it a lot lately, I figured others may be wondering the same thing. So, here's my response.

Dear Matt,
Think of this interview process in three stages.
1. Before the Interview: Make a plan.

You'll cut down on your stress if you consider the details. For example, what will you wear to the interview? Even if the corporate culture is informal, err on formal side. It's a matter of respect to show up with your clothing neat and professional. Get a haircut, clean your nails, shine your shoes, buy a new pair of socks, or whatever it takes to shine yourself up. On the day of the interview, wear little or no cologne, perfume or jewelry. Don't bring your backpack either. It's important to look the part to get the part.

Review the information you have on the company and the job description.  You may have completed this step several weeks ago, and your command of this information may be waning. Refresh your memory. Jot down questions you have. Think about a typical day in the life of the person in this position. What do you know about it already? What do you need to know? One of my favorite questions is "what is the most negative aspect of this job?" I don't start with this question because I don't want to put my interviewer off, but I've gotten lots of information that helps me make a good decision by asking this question.

Plan answers to the questions you are likely to get asked too. Keep in mind every question is an opportunity for you to tell the interviewer why he/she should hire you. Recall the specific examples that support your points. Think about how you can set yourself apart from the other applicants. Practice your 30-second marketing pitch until you are comfortable with it. Know your key points.
Logistics are important too. How will you get to the interview? How long will it take? Where can you park? With whom and where are you meeting? If at all possible, do a test run prior to the interview. It will help you feel prepared and in control on the day of the interview. Get a good night's sleep. On interview day, arrive 15 minutes early. Let the receptionist know you have arrived. Speak clearly and confidently. Smile. Pay attention to your nonverbal messages (posture, eye contact, hands, fidgeting). While you are waiting for your interviewer, take out your extra copies of your résumé along with your pen and tablet. As the interviewer approaches, rise and give him/her a firm handshake. Try to engage in comfortable small talk to establish some rapport.
2. During the interview: It's Show Time!

Once you've arrived in the interviewer's office, wait to be offered or directed to a seat. Once seated, the interviewer is likely to engage in some preliminary conversation about the position to give you a chance to get settled. However, some interviewers will start right away with the first question. For example, a typical first gambit is, tell me a little about yourself. Remember to keep the response relevant to the company and the position. When you hear this wide-open question, use it like a wild card. The fact that you have a perfect dancing imitation of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever is certainly interesting but not the slightest bit relevant. Highlight your qualifications for the position.

If you get asked, why did you apply to this position, the interviewer is trying to see if you have researched and prepared for this particular job and company. Show enthusiasm and knowledge. You've done the research, now here is the opportunity to use it. Don't respond with a lackluster, "I saw your advertisement on our college's website." Companies spend a lot of money to train new employees, and they want to invest in people who are likely to have thoroughly thought through what they want to do and for whom they want to do it.
One question that intimates a lot of students is, I notice your summer jobs were not in your field, can you tell me about this? The interviewer is looking for you to give him/her assurance that you are not naïve about the field or the position. Just recently a recruiter conveyed to me how important it is for students to know how to express how their work experience is relevant. She mentioned that her company had just interviewed three new graduates, two with experience within the field and one with experience as the manager of a Dairy Queen. They hired the manager of the Dairy Queen, and she added, "he's doing very well!" The tasks you performed at your non-professional  jobs gave you transferable skills. Examples of transfer skills include the following: communication, analytical, interpersonal, conflict resolution, problem solving, leadership, attending to details, decision-making, and developing rapport. The key is to think of what tasks you performed and what skills they required; then clearly convey them to the interviewer.
Make sure to ask questions too. Try to establish a natural give and take to the rhythm of the interview. Ask questions that help you determine if you're a good match for the position and the company. True, you want to get a job offer to avoid having to move back in with your parents (and trust me, they feel the same way), but more importantly you want to find the right job and place for you. Plus interviewers are impressed by applicants who show their enthusiasm and knowledge by asking intelligent, thoughtful questions.
3. At the end of the interview and after: it's a wrap.
At the end of the interview, remember to ask, what are the next steps in the interview process?  Often the response to this question will inform you of how many other candidates are being interviewed and when the selection committee will be making a decision. Another question you may want to ask has to do with how well the interview went. For example, asking, is there anything you would like to have further explanation of that you are still wondering about after our interview today? allows the interviewer to bring up, and you to respond to, any possible hindrances to your getting a job offer. Chances are that when you come out of the interview, your friends and family are going to ask you how the interview went anyway. By asking this question, you'll get a better feeling for just how it went from your interviewer's perspective.
After the interview, and within one week, write either a handwritten, typed, or friendly e-mail thank-you note to everyone with whom you interviewed. It shows your professionalism, maturity, interest, and courtesy. I've actually had students tell me that their interviewers told them that one of the reasons they beat out other candidates for the position was because they wrote thank you notes. We hire people we want to be around. Showing your considerate side is another way to indicate you are a pleasant worker.
If you don't hear anything after the time the decision was supposed to be made, call and politely inquire. If you're informed you were not selected, try and find out how you can better your chances next time. Above all else, stay positive. See each rejection as moving you closer to an acceptance. Think Chumbawamba--I get knocked down, but I get up again. You're never going to keep me down.
Now try and get this song out of your head!

forest 1.jpgIf you were asked what audience-centered writing is, would you be able to say? Last week 32 upper-level meteorology students responded to a survey in which they were asked if they could define this term, and the majority (76 percent) responded "maybe." Also, when asked to "list strategies you use to adapt your writing to achieve audience-centered writing," most of the students--73 percent--were able to list only one strategy.

The most frequent strategies mentioned were "adjust the vocabulary or terminology" (24 percent) and, "know who your audience is" (21 percent). Audience-centered writing is key to engaging your reader and encouraging comprehension of your information, particularly if you are communicating with the non-specialists or a general audience, but it isn't easy to do. Here are ways to achieve this goal.

First, the definition of audience-centered writing is when you write with your reader's needs, expectations, knowledge, and preferences in mind.  Five key questions to orient you toward a successful audience-centered style are as follows:
  • What expectations does my audience have about my subject? About me as a writer?
  • What is my audience likely to know about the topic?
  • What firsthand experiences is my audience likely to have with the topic? What points will I need to develop?
  • What terms are likely to be unfamiliar to my audience?
  • How will my audience use my writing on this topic? What do they hope to gain from reading my piece?
All writing has an intended audience; someone is always on the receiving end. As a scientist, you will be asked to communicate with those who don't have your level of expertise, so you'll need to pay particular attention to audience-centered writing when you are adapting your writing to this more general audience.
To adapt your writing to a general audience consider these eight characteristics.
  • Content--What's the scope? What needs to be included? What doesn't? This is about the breadth of the writing.
  • Level of detail--How much information is needed for development? What specific details will this audience need? This goes toward the depth of the writing.
  • Vocabulary--What words does the reader understand? What ones need to be defined? What jargon is understood by the reader? What isn't?
  • Organization--How will the reader want the material to be presented? How should the pieces be put together for maximum clarity and comprehension? From general to specific? Chronologically? Spatially? From less controversial to more controversial? From simpler to more complex?
  • Tone--What is the sound of the language? Formal? Informal? Irreverent? Serious? Playful?
  • Visuals--What graphs, tables, diagrams, illustrations or other visual aids are needed to convey the salient points to this reader?
  • Format/Structure--What is the physical appearance of the material? Titles? Headings? Subheadings? Conventional? Unconventional?
  • Readability--How accessible is the content and language overall?
To communicate well is to engage in self-interest. The ability to write and speak effectively will determine in no uncertain terms, the perceived importance and validity of your work. To a large degree, your reputation will rest on your ability to communicate. The reason to improve your skill in this area is not just to please your teachers; it is to gain advantage in the professional world.
If a tree falls in the woods, and no one hears it, did it make a sound? Isn't this similar to a scientists writing without readers?

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