When Gina and Vinny Centauro agreed to renovate and repair the Helfenbein family home in Hempstead in the summer of 2019, they didn’t know just how extensive the project would be.
The Centauros, who live in Franklin Square, were aware that Claire Helfenbein, the matriarch of the family, uses a wheelchair and spends most of her time caring for her autistic son, Jacob, who often damaged the walls of the house. They knew that Claire’s husband, Irving, used to take care of the necessary repairs. But since Irving had died of pancreatic and lung cancer in 2012, Claire had been responsible for the house’s upkeep.
It had since had an infestation of mice, mildew in the bathroom, bathroom floors that were breaking apart, a deteriorating deck and a leaking roof — all of which the Centauros were ready to tackle when they announced in August 2019 that their nonprofit organization, Rescuing Families Inc., would begin renovating the home in January 2020.
But what they weren’t prepared for was the extensive structural problems with the house, and a global pandemic that would shut down not only their operations, but also their annual fundraisers.
“The house is in much worse condition than we had actually anticipated,” said Gina, who founded Rescuing Families with Vinny in 2016, “which has been depleting our charity’s funds.”
The Franklin Square-based organization was created to fix up houses between New Jersey and Long Island for homeowners who could not make the repairs themselves, because of disabilities or a lack of funds. The Centauros came up with the idea after they founded a construction and renovation firm, Truly Unique Designs, and noticed that some families were unable to properly repair their homes.
They and a team of volunteers have since repaired a house in Wyandanch for two brothers whose father died, as well as a home in Port Jefferson Station for a man with ALS who was having difficulty getting around his home. In just two and a half months in 2018, the crew made Keith Mauro’s home wheelchair-accessible, which, Mauro said, enabled him to “get around in my own home,” adding that the organization’s work meant the world to him and his family.
The Centauros are now hoping to do the same for the Helfenbein family, but are facing unforeseen challenges.
Since they began working on the home last year, Gina said, its 68-year-old furnace died, and the Centauros realized that the entire electrical system had to be replaced. Additionally, she said, they discovered that about 75 percent of the house’s exterior framing had rotted away, the porch needed to be rebuilt and the roof rafters had to be replaced.
“The house has a series of damage done by contractors and thieves who took advantage of this family,” Gina said, explaining that the Helfenbeins had hired a contractor who proceeded to destroy the roof structure, cover it up and make off with their money. “It’s very sad.”
But in order to do all of the repairs while continuing to pay for the Helfenbeins’ temporary stay at the Residence Inn in Garden City, which increased from $800 to $1,000 a week, Rescuing Families needs money — a problem the Centauros have faced since many of their annual fundraisers were canceled during the pandemic.
Gina has estimated that the organization needs roughly $10,000 to meet its expenses, and in March she started a Giving Grid fundraiser to help fill the gap, in which people can donate any amount they like to post their favorite photo, saying or even business logo. The Centauros have several other fundraisers planned, including a Mother’s Day Car Wash and Plant Sale on May 7, a Panera Bread and Anthony’s Coal Fire Pizza fundraiser, and a bottle redemption drive, in which participants can redeem their plastic bottles for spare change to donate to Rescuing Families.
Gina and Vinny are also using their own money to help fund the Helfenbein renovation, and Gina’s brother, Mick Cantone, a singer and guitarist who helped found Rescuing Families, is donating half of the proceeds from his debut album, “Songs for an Activist,” to the cause. The CDs cost $15, which includes shipping, and payments can be made to Cantone on Venmo at @Mick-Cantone.
“It was simply the right thing to do,” Cantone said. “Without the generosity of donors, no matter the size of the amount, Rescuing Families cannot do the necessary work to help the families we help.”
Donations can also be made online at www.RescuingFamilies.org.