Fifteen years later, Wofford family reflects on life-changing ‘Extreme’ home makeover
If you were a TV watcher in 2004, chances are you remember the Wofford family of Encinitas.
On Sept. 26 of that year, America was introduced to widower Brian Wofford and his eight children ages 6 to 18, who were chosen by ABC television producers for what would become one of the most-watched and most-popular episodes of the top-rated series “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.”
In just four days, the TV production crew, a local contractor and an army of community volunteers transformed the Woffords’ aging 1,200-square-foot home into a luxurious, two-story, 4,300-square-foot mini-mansion. Before the remodel, the children slept in bunkbeds, with the four girls sharing one bedroom and the four boys in the garage.
Producers knew the touching story would be ratings gold, so they expanded it into a two-part episode to open the series’ second season and then revisited the family a year later for a reunion special. Both parts of the Makeover special can be found on YouTube: Part 1 and Part 2.
Walking through the glass-paneled front doors of the Wofford home 15 years later, it’s as if no time has passed. The home remains in pristine condition, with surfboards lining the entry hallway, individual lockers and a clawfoot tub in the upstairs girls’ bathroom and the oversize dining room table — designed to resemble a basketball court, a family passion — is still there, though the hand-drawn free-throw lanes and arcs have worn off due to heavy family use.
Wofford, 68, is now a proud grandfather and his children, ages 21 to 32, are all doing well and most have moved away. On reflection, Wofford and his two eldest children say the makeover experience was a turning point for the family, and not just because it put a big new roof over their heads.
“It was something we needed as a family to move on from our mom’s death,” said eldest daughter Bekah Eppler, 31, of Redding, who stepped into the maternal role at age 12 when her mom passed in 2000. “We had been in the grieving process for four-and-a-half years and this was the fresh start we needed to start living life again.”
The perfect family
Brian and Teresa Wofford met at North Coast Calvary Church in 1985 and fell instantly in love. She told him she wanted lots of babies and she delivered on that promise eight times over, plus two miscarriages.
The Woffords were well known as the fun family where neighborhood kids could come for healthy snacks and play basketball at a front-yard hoop. Teresa was a full-time mom and Brian was a chiropractor and rec basketball coach, starting each workday at 3:30 a.m. so he could get home in time to attend his kids’ basketball games.
Eppler said they were a happy, joyful family but they struggled financially and the home fell into disrepair.
“The home always came last,” she said. “Whenever it came down to fixing the cabinets or a hole in the wall because we kids decided to play baseball in the house, they chose putting food on the table and making sure we had clothes on and no holes in our shoes.”
It was a juggling act the Woffords managed to keep aloft until Teresa unexpectedly died at age 41 from complications of the flu. Then everything collapsed. Eppler said she stubbornly took on the care of her younger siblings as a coping mechanism.
“I figured if I can control the situation and make everything like it was when she was here, maybe she won’t be gone,” said Eppler, now a married mother of two and a high school basketball coach.
Vista resident Robin Reinke remembers sitting on the couch with her husband, Jeff, watching the first season of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” in 2004 and she kept having the same thought.
“Every week, I told Jeff that the Wofford family would be perfect for this show,” said Reinke, a marriage and family therapist who knew the Woffords from North Coast Calvary Chapel, where her husband is the marriage and family pastor. “They were such a great and well-loved family in the community and they had such a tragic thing happen in their lives. It would be wonderful if something nice happened for them.”
So, with the Woffords’ permission, Reinke hired a videographer and they filmed an audition tape, describing their situation and their home, which in addition to being too small had a leaky roof, a rotting fence and foundation problems. Brian Wofford was also struggling with Type 2 diabetes related to his weight, which peaked at 376 pounds.
Reinke mailed the video in a padded envelope she covered in happy face and basketball stickers and the names of all eight children. Ten days later, the phone rang with news that the Woffords were finalists for the show.
All is usually not as it seems with television shows, but Brian Wofford said the surprise, joy and gratitude captured on camera during that summer week in late June 2004 was authentic.
“Everything about the process was so intentional and thoughtful, and so many of our friends and community members came forward to help,” he said. “This community has loved my children and they’ve been kind enough to put up with me. Even when we were having baby after baby, there were no haters. ”
After a surprise wake-up call via megaphone by show host Ty Pennington, the Woffords were packed off to St. Thomas for a one-week vacation, while the house was virtually demolished and quadrupled in size by mostly volunteer crews run 24 hours a day by local contractor Bill Larson.
Eppler said she remembers a scene they filmed in St. Thomas where they watched on live video as a bulldozer tore through their house. She and her siblings screamed with excitement but their father was holding back tears.
“He was crushed,” she said. “That was a place that he and my Mom spent so much money and so much time on. There were a lot of memories there.”
North Coast Calvary Lead Pastor Mark Foreman organized donations and volunteers from the pulpit, students from the kids’ schools and basketball teams showed up to do painting and refinishing and Marines from Camp Pendleton moved in furniture on reveal day when the family returned.
More than 4,000 cheering local residents lined the street for blocks in 90-degree heat when the blindfolded family returned in a limousine on June 30. Eldest son Peter Wofford, 32, said he was overwhelmed by the home’s transformation.
“We were dumbfounded,” said Peter, an L.A. resident who works in marketing and sales. “I thought maybe they would add 25 percent more to our house but what the did was beyond my imagination.”
While the new home was wonderful, Peter said the support from the community meant even more.
“I remember being in awe,” he said. “I was shocked to see so many people there. It was humbling and a really cool experience to know that you’re not going through it alone. That was priceless to me.”
Taking cues from pre-production interviews with the children, the TV crew designed bedrooms and communal spaces, including a two-story home gym, that Peter said perfectly fit everyone’s personalities and needs.
His room had a dartboard, TV and mini-pool table where he could hang out with friends. And Eppler got the queen-size bed she dreamed of and a beachy retreat decor.
Carpentry enthusiast Luke got a build-it-yourself bedroom with indoor tool bench. Now 29, he and his new wife, Drea, live at the Wofford home and he works for Wardell Builders. His twin sister, Lizzie, got a “shopping mall”-style room. She now works in corporate recruiting in Hawaii.
The two youngest brothers shared a room with a “Lion King” theme on one side for Aaron and a spaceship theme for Elijah. Aaron, now 27, manages two ice cream shops, coaches third-grade basketball and lives at the Wofford family home. And Elijah, now 21, is studying business at Boise State University.
The two youngest sisters also shared a room. Anna’s side had a cowgirl theme with a horse mural and saddle, and monkey-loving Esther had a jungle bed with a chimpanzee blanket. Now 28, Anna spent some time as a horse trainer and now runs her own business and lives in San Diego with her boyfriend, Austin. Now 26 and newly engaged, Esther — like her older sister Bekah — earned a basketball scholarship to Simpson University in Redding. She coaches freshman girls basketball at the same school where Bekah coaches the freshmen boys.
After the episode aired, the Wofford family returned to their normal routines, though Peter said for the first year after the show random strangers would knock on the door and ask for a tour. Eppler said the media attention brought the family a lot of opportunities they hadn’t expected.
Jeff Reinke from North Coast Calvary Chapel said the experience had a profound emotional impact on the family, who never missed weekly services.
“I think it gave them a sense of hope and encouraged their faith,” he said. “It helped them feel that God was taking care of them. And it was so encouraging in helping them pursue their dreams.”
Not long after the show aired, Brian Wofford underwent gastric bypass surgery, which helped him reduce his body weight by half and he regained his health. He never remarried, saying “blended families can be tough,” so he made a vow not to date until the kids were grown. Now he’s open to the possibility.
The family made headlines again in 2009, this time not so happily, when the home went into foreclosure. After the recession hit, Wofford’s adjustable mortgage rate ballooned and he was already struggling with bills related to his surgery, office repairs and higher property taxes. Eventually, the loan issues were worked out.
Wofford said he’s now working toward paying off the mortgage so he can pass the house on to his children as a legacy from him and his late wife.
“I want it to be the party house where they can all come together to be a family again when I’m gone,” he said. “I’m grateful for three things: Christ in my life, Teresa and my kids. I lived my dream. I’ve had a good life. No one has had it better than me.”
— Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union Tribune
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