Gina and Vincent Centauro have worked as licensed contractors on Long Island for a decade. While running their contracting business, Truly Unique Designs, the Franklin Square couple began to notice the hardships of the families whose homes they were renovating. Vincent said some clients couldn’t pay for additional improvements that were desperately needed, while others had disabilities and struggled to move around their homes.
“We were going into their homes and seeing their struggles, and we decided to help them by doing those extra renovations ourselves,” Vincent said.
In 2016, the couple transformed their charity work into a nonprofit organization, Rescuing Families Inc., which raises funds to fix up the homes of people in need, including veterans and the disabled. Together with more than a dozen volunteers, the Centauros travel across Long Island, Queens and New Jersey to fix up homes for some of the hundreds who write letters to them every year asking for help.
The work is personal for the couple. Both have family members who have lived with disabilities. Gina’s father is a disabled Korean War veteran, and her sister is autistic and deaf, and Vincent’s father served in Vietnam and struggles with ataxia, a neurological disorder similar to multiple sclerosis.
Although Vincent, now 39, had a love for carpentry that he developed during his teenage years helping his grandfather build tree houses for kids, he at first was inspired by his father’s commitment to serving others and decided to become an emergency medical technician. But after suffering an injury, he had to retire from the FDNY, and he and Gina, now 48, began looking for a home to settle down in 2009, when they came across one in Franklin Square.
Gina said the house needed work, and the couple decided to renovate it themselves. Gina was an interior and landscape designer, but she picked up carpentry quickly from Vincent. The success of their renovation, which was featured among the Top 100 home construction projects on the PBS home remodeling show “This Old House,” was what inspired the couple to start their business.
“It’s not just simple renovations to the houses,” Gina said. “We have to make it a sustainable home and make sure they can live there comfortably.”
Vincent said that most of their wheelchair-bound clients had bathtubs in their bathrooms, which forced the clients to hop back and forth from their wheelchairs to tub chairs, which could have caused them to slip and fall. Rescuing Families Inc. removes the tubs and adds “curbless” showers with no obstacles. They also add grab bars, ramps and chair lifts to homes that need them. Because many of the houses they work on are older, the doorframes tend to be narrow and limit accessibility for those in wheelchairs, so often doorframes must be widened — a major project.
Gina added that the clients whom they help often have leaking roofs and overgrown shrubbery in their yards, which Gina and Vincent help them with. They also might pay overdue bills.
The work inspired Jane Dietlein, of Bayside, to volunteer for Rescuing Families Inc. Dietlein, who is retired, said that she had spent the last year looking for a place to volunteer when she heard about Rescuing Families Inc. “I went to one of their orientations, and everyone was so welcoming and real,” Dietlein said. “I remember that after their presentation on their work so far, my eyes were filled with tears.”
Dietlein assists the Centauros with their fundraisers. She affectionately calls them Vinny and Ginny. Rescuing Families Inc. hosts a number of events and raffles to pay for construction supplies, but their biggest funding source is a monthly yard sale at the couple’s home, at 1010 Lewiston St. Ten large tents cover the yard from April to November, with volunteers displaying items for sale.
The Centauros are continuing in their efforts to find more volunteers to help renovate about a dozen homes this year. They recruited both of their brothers to volunteer. The couple also need donations of storage bins to protect items that are sold at their yard sales.
“The two hardest things about doing this is narrowing down the list of people we can help each year...and getting enough people and storage bins to actually get the work done,” Vincent said.