For the past six years, Andreas Bernt and his wife have dreamed of remodeling their home to make life a bit easier for Bernt, who is confined to a wheelchair. On Friday, the retired United States Air Force Staff Sergeant's dream became a reality when Tampa Bay Buccaneers General Manager Mark Dominik visited his home to announce the team's donation of $40,000 towards a renovation project for Bernt and his family.
"This is something that we've been trying to figure out for six years, but how could we make this house handicap accessible without the money to do so?" Bernt's wife, Brenda, often asked herself. "This is a prayer being answered, to us."
Bernt, who originally enlisted in the Air Force in 1980 at the age of 19, served 10 years as a firefighter and emergency rescue responder, including overseas service in Germany. After being honorably discharged from the Air Force, Bernt served in a similar capacity as a civilian at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa for 18 years before his forced medical retirement in 2005. Bernt was diagnosed with Stage 4 Lymphoma, but overcame the cancer only to contract Transverse Mellitus, which weakened his spine and nervous system. Bernt no longer has feeling from the chest down, and is confined to a wheelchair.
"Obviously our veterans are really important to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and they're really important to our community," Dominik said. "We're just happy to be able to be a part of this renovation and are looking forward to the changes that it can have for them."
On Friday, Dominik met with Bernt and reviewed plans to help renovate his home. The Buccaneers partnered with Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay, a local nonprofit organization dedicated to facilitating residential housing rehabilitation programs to improve living conditions for very low and low income families, especially those of senior citizens and persons with disabilities. Bernt's home renovation project will include remodeling bathrooms, widening doorways, remodeling the kitchen, updating household appliances and ensuring the home is more livable and accommodating to Bernt's needs.
"This is an opportunity right around the Christmas holiday to pair up with Rebuilding Together and do something that's important for this family," Dominik said. "We just want to remind everybody what the season is about, giving back and being a part of that, and you can do that for anybody."
As the Bernts gave Dominik a tour of the family home, discussing upcoming renovations, Brenda's eyes welled up with tears of gratitude.
"You have touched our hearts," she told Dominik. "Everything is possible. Just don't give up. Keep on dreaming, keep on hoping, keep on praying and dreams do come true. This is a dream that is going to come true for us."
The heartfelt moment brought tears to Dominik's eyes, as well, as he embraced her in a hug.
"She's a wonderful wife and a wonderful lady, a wonderful woman who's given her whole life to her husband now," Dominik said. "To have a chance to hopefully free her up a little bit and to let her have some of her life back a little bit and to watch her cry brought tears to my eyes, too. It's a big deal for their family, and I'm glad we can be a part of it. It makes it that much better."
Having a father and a brother who served in the Navy, Dominik has a special affection for war veterans and all those who serve the country in the military. Friday's donation was just one of the many community outreach efforts Dominik has initiated since he was named the Buccaneers general manager in 2009 to bring awareness to issues affecting local military.
After serving his country for nearly 30 years, Bernt is devoted to the cause of military service as well. Despite his disability, he has been a long-time advocate for disabled veterans and has helped mentor fellow veterans and others with spinal injuries. He is an active participant in wheelchair sports, including Tampa Bay Strong Dogs Softball and the National Wheel Chair Bowling tournament, and has also been a participant in the National Wheel Chair Games as a weight lifter, discus thrower, basketball player and softball player.
Now, Bernt can add architecture to his long list of hobbies, as he and his wife begin to draw up a plan to create a more livable environment for the deserving couple. The Bucs' help has made that possible.
"You guys have made my day, my week, my year," Bernt concluded.