2010 Civic People of the Year: Rich Podlas and Chuck Thomas

01/05/2011 11:58 PM |

TIM GANNON PHOTO | Rich Podlas (left) and Chuck Thomas

They say it takes a village to raise a child. But 6-year-old Jared Behr isn’t just any child. He is blind and suffers from epilepsy, cerebral palsy and brain damage. And his mom, Heidi, was a Riverhead volunteer EMT who died in an ambulance crash at age 23 in May 2005, when Jared was 14 months old.

Ever since, Riverhead and its people have pulled together for Jared and his grandparents, June and John Behr of Riverside Drive, who have cared for him since their daughter was killed in the crash, which also took the life of paramedic Bill Stone of Rocky Point.

Two men have stood out in those efforts to help: Riverhead architect Chuck Thomas and town building inspector Rich Podlas, who have been named the News-Review’s Civic People of the Year for 2010. Mr. Podlas, who is also a contractor, and Mr. Thomas have given their all to help Jared and his grandparents.

Mr. Podlas and Mr. Thomas stepped in after the Behrs — who needed more room and a house better suited to Jared’s needs ­— and their many supporters couldn’t convince the producers of ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” to feature them and remake their 800-square-foot house. The two men, with the help of family and friends, including Riverhead and Jamesport firefighters, are undertaking their own home makeover, restoring an old farmhouse in Cutchogue that belonged to June Behr’s late parents, the McBrides.

“June’s parents passed away within the last couple of years, and through the family estate, she got the house,” explained John Behr’s brother, Larry, of Cutchogue. “But it’s a very old farmhouse and it needed a lot of renovation.”

Mr. Podlas, a longtime family friend, and Mr. Thomas, who got to know Heidi when the two took karate lessons together, have spent most of their free time at the Cutchogue house, according to the Behrs and others involved in the project.

“They really stepped up to the plate, and the family is very proud of them,” Larry Behr said. “The unselfishness and dedication of both of them is unmeasurable.”

Before the project got started in June, the Behrs, whose other daughter, Dana, 26, lived with them for a time, spent their days filled with uncertainty. They knew they could not continue to care for Jared properly.

The restoration had to include provisions for a handicapped resident, “and these two gentlemen undertook this task,” Larry Behr added. “They’ve coordinated so many people to help either through donations or time. It’s really a miracle.”

Not only did the two men recruit a contractor to volunteer his time to build a rear deck, they and their helpers also designed and rebuilt an aging kitchen, widened doorways and thresholds throughout the house and made all the hallways and bathrooms handicapped accessible. They’ve also added an elevator so the Behrs wouldn’t have to carry their growing grandson to his upstairs bedroom, as they’ve been doing in their Riverhead home.

“They’re just two good guys who went off and did a job, and I give them all the credit in the world,” said former Riverhead Town supervisor Jim Stark, who helps run Heidi’s Helping Angels, a nonprofit group that organizes scholarship fundraisers and other events in Heidi Behr’s memory.

Donations are helping provide and pay for renovation materials, as will the sale of the Behrs’ old house once they move to Cutchogue, probably in two or three months.

“It’s just amazing when you think about that farmhouse,” Mr. Stark said. “It had small rooms, a small kitchen. Now everything’s open. It’s a whole process that absolutely brings tears to your eyes sometimes to see it happen.” It will make “the life of young Jared so much more comfortable, and with that the possibility of a real future,” he said.

Back when the TV show’s producers chose an East Setauket family for their Long Island area home makeover, the disappointed Behrs considered moving off the pricey island.

“We were really stuck between a rock and a hard place. My parents had just died. My sister has also just died,” said June Behr, choking back tears. “Everybody’s buried here, and I didn’t want to leave them. And the way the economy is, at least John has a job and we couldn’t leave Heidi behind and move away.

“We were thinking of selling both houses, none of which fit our needs,” she added, but then Mr. Podlas and Mr. Thomas “took the bull by the horns. Chuck drew up the plans and they were perfect.”

mwhite@timesreview.com

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