Rather than shopping for themselves, Franklin Square residents Gina and Vincent Centauro have spent recent weeks collecting gifts for five local families in need, including a single mother of an 18-month-old daughter, a family of five whose mother was diagnosed with Stage 2 colon cancer, a single mother with six children who now live in a homeless shelter, another family of five who recently lost their home and a wheelchair-bound widow who is struggling to afford gifts for her two children.
“We’re just really working hard to get what we can for these families,” Gina said in a Facebook Live video posted on Dec. 12, when she asked residents to donate gift cards and unused toys for the families.
The couple have run a nonprofit organization from their home since 2016, when they founded Rescuing Families Inc., which helps those in need to renovate their homes. They now travel across the Island, fixing up the homes of some of the hundreds of residents who write to them every year asking for help.
For these selfless acts, the Herald is proud to name the Centauros its 2019 People of the Year.
Vincent, 40, first became interested in carpentry when he was 10 and living in Elmont. He worked with his grandfather to build tree houses for neighborhood children. By 15, age he was apprenticing for area contractors.
At the same time, he cared for his ailing father. The senior Centauro was a Vietnam veteran who had been exposed to Agent Orange, a potentially carcinogenic herbicide, and was diagnosed with ataxia, a neurological condition that causes involuntary muscle movements. He had to stop working at age 39. “I was a young kid at the time,” Vincent recalled. “I was pretty much a caretaker for him.”
As Vincent grew up, he wanted to continue helping New Yorkers, and when he was in his early 20s, he joined the New York City Fire Department as an emergency medical technician. He worked there for several years before returning to his original passion, becoming a licensed contractor.
When Gina, 49, was born, a doctor dislocated her hip, and she had to wear braces and orthotic shoes growing up in New Hyde Park with her parents and three siblings, two of whom were also born with disabilities. Her brother was born with outward-facing feet, she said, and her sister, Dina, is autistic and became deaf as a result of a fever she had as an infant. “My poor parents had their hands full,” Gina said, adding that most of the money her parents earned went to Dina’s therapy.
Gina put her college career on hold to help her parents care for her sister, and after her mother died of lung cancer in 2014, her father struggled to keep up with the medical bills. Then he lost his house, and Gina helped him and Dina find an affordable apartment.
Those experiences, she said, are “a huge driver in why I do what I do.”
She met Vincent in 2003, and they married in 2007. They found a house in Franklin Square, but it needed a great deal of work, and they renovated it themselves. They were so successful with the renovation that it was featured among the Top 100 home construction projects on the PBS home remodeling show “This Old House,” and they were inspired to start their own contracting business, Truly Unique Designs.
When they renovated other people’s homes, they took note of the hardships their clients faced. Some couldn’t pay for additional but necessary improvements, Vincent said, while others had disabilities and struggled to move around in their homes. “A lot of them were saying they feel forgotten,” Gina said, adding that it reminded her of the struggles her family faced while she was growing up. “It was very frustrating to see that there were other families going through that,” she said.
So, Vincent said, “We decided to help them by doing those extra renovations ourselves.”
The Centauros created a charity to help those in need rebuild. Then they spoke to Gina’s brother, Michael Cantone, about getting involved, and he said he “enthusiastically agreed.”
“Being an individual who disdains armchair activism,” Cantone said, “this was a wonderful forum for doing something positive in the world.”
He added that since they started renovating homes, people have told him he must be proud of the work he does. But, he said, “All that matters to me is the fact that the families we help have a burden lifted off them, and they can enjoy what the majority of us take for granted — a safe, comfortable and functional home.”
Dina’s aide and life coach, Roger Grand-Pierre, also decided to help out. “I remember it like yesterday, when we were sitting at the kitchen table discussing, planning and delegating,” he recalled. “And now I feel it has grown into a movement.”
By 2017, they were helping their first family, the Tribbles, in Wyandanch. The father had died in 2016 of a heart attack, leaving behind two sons, the older of whom, Bruce, has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair after sustaining a brain injury in 2013. His younger brother, John, acted as his caretaker, but found it increasingly difficult to maintain their house without their father.
It did not have heat for 15 years, and had no operable kitchen or bathroom. “When you’re living in that situation for over 20 years, it’s hard to see you’re in it,” John said, but he thought he owed it to his father to “sit in that house like ‘Horton Hears a Who.’”
A Medicaid service coordinator, meanwhile, was trying to encourage Bruce to become more independent, and reached out to independent broker Karla Benavides, who specializes in creating budgets and daily living plans for people with disabilities, about creating a plan for him.
When Benavides saw the condition of the Tribbles’ home, she knew she would need help, and encouraged John to apply for Rescuing Families aid in 2017.
The group spent a year gutting the house, retiling the roof that the brothers fixed in 2005, tearing down the garage and making the home livable. While there, the Centauros also found 11 full garbage bags that measured 32 feet tall when stacked up, which made the brothers realize how much they were hoarding. “It was a lonely house,” John recalled of the time before he sought help, “and all of a sudden, even before the house was fixed, it became brighter.”
Some people said the Tribbles were fortunate to have the work done for free, John recalled, but he rejected that idea. “There was nothing free about it,” he said. “If I could have my brother and my father healthy, I’d rather have that.”
He also said they were lucky not to have their house redone, but rather were “lucky to have found Vinny, Gina and Mike, because more important than the work they did was the love they brought to two Long Island brothers who lost their father.”
The brothers are now part of the Centauros’s extended family, John Tribble said, and that family will only grow as the couple continue to help more Long Islanders. The Centauros have since renovated Keith Mauro’s house in Port Jefferson Station, and will start work on Claire Helfenbein’s Hempstead home next month.
Mauro’s house was becoming difficult to navigate in 2018, as he has ALS and is in a wheelchair. His bathroom was not handicapped-accessible, and his wheelchair kept getting caught on the old floorboards. The family couldn’t afford a new bathroom, and the Centauros decided to help.
Instead of fixing only the bathroom, the couple made the entire house wheelchair accessible in only two and a half months. “They made it so that I can get around in my own home,” Mauro said. “So it means the world to us.”
Helfenbein, who is in a wheelchair due to a birth defect, told the Herald in August that her husband, Iriving, used to take care of the repairs of their Hempstead home, but since he died seven years ago of pancreatic and lung cancer, it has been up to her to repair the damage caused by her autistic teenage son, Jacob.
The house is now falling apart, with a mouse infestation, mildew in the bathroom, floors that are breaking apart, a deteriorating deck and a leaking roof. “It’s stuff that I could never do,” Claire said.
To fund the cost of repairs, Rescuing Families hosted a number of fundraisers throughout the year. They held several charity yard sales, which they hope to continue in February, and hosted a barbecue in August. It featured food catered by several local businesses, giant Jenga, Connect Four, live music, karaoke, face-painting and magic, and line dancing. By the end of the night, the organization had raised more than $7,000 for the cause.
But Claire said she was just happy that the Centauros were willing to take the time to help her family. “This is an amazing group of people,” she said, “and they have a place in heaven waiting for them.”
Ronny Reyes contributed to this story.