Blue Ridge Parade of Homes set

By Linda Sands

A few weeks ago, a dying woman’s wish was fulfilled when Major League Baseball played its first game in Iowa. To be exact, the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees met up on the baseball diamond in her back yard, The Field of Dreams. I feel certain Diane Stillman was cheering them on from her VIP seat in heaven.

I love that movie. Everyone loves that movie. Especially when the Kevin Costner character hears a voice in his head telling him to “Build It. He will come.”

I can’t stop thinking about those words and that kind of faith and determination as I look around the table in the backroom of a local pizza joint in Blue Ridge, Georgia. Eight men have gathered, as they do every week. But they aren’t here to talk baseball. They’re here to talk about the Blue Ridge Mountains Parade of Homes event, and how they can give back to the community that raised them.

This will be the third year for the Parade of Homes: a ticketed tour of custom dwellings designed and built by premier builders in North Georgia. This Oct. 8-10, the public is invited to visit 10 luxury lakefront, creekfront, mountaintop and subdivision properties where they can meet the builders and vendors, ask questions and gather ideas—whether for a remodel or to plan their own dream home.

The man at the head of the table is Keith Sumner, of Keith Sumner Homes and Land. He would hate that I used the term head of the table. If he had his way, the table would be round. That’s the kind of guy Keith is.

“You’d think we’d be competitors,” he says, motioning to the men at the table: Marc Nicholson, Buzz Quintrell, Don Clement, Ron Lomonaco, Tommy Wosyluk, Travis Coleman, and Kevin Teague. “But we’re not. I like to think we make each other better, how working together on this event has elevated our product.” His comment is met with enthusiastic nods and a few chuckles.

When I ask where the home tour idea came from, one of the founding members pipes up telling me how Keith dragged them all over, taking them to states where builders were creating similar events to showcase their homes. How it took a lot of meetings to finally convince everyone that this was something they could do.

Keith looks sheepish admitting that it had started as a selfish thing, wanting to show off their homes, this beautiful land and all it has to offer. The luxury dwellings these builders create are a far cry from the typical spec home found on the MLS. Potential homebuyers in their suburban kitchens clicking through Internet listings will never find this kind of property (nor, quite possibly, the road that leads to it).

In the North Georgia Mountains, nothing is typical. I know from experience how difficult it is to find the right builder in a site-specific area—one who has the skill to construct, the creative mind to match the dream of his client and the crew to make it happen. That’s why the Parade of Homes is so important.

More than 5,000 attendees from 26 states in the first two years seem to agree. And when funds from ticket sales and sponsors exceeded expectations, the eight men of the long table decided to give back to the community in a lasting way. They formed a non-profit Scholarship Foundation for students who were continuing education in a construction-related field.

In the first year, the Parade of Homes committee presented a $10,000 scholarship to Norma Solis, a student at Gilmer County High School planning to study architectural design. “This will definitely open new doors for me,” she says. “Coming from a family of nine siblings and as the first one to graduate high school…I’m so grateful.”

Norma’s academic achievements, determination, and willingness to work have earned her the admiration of everyone in this room. As such, they refer to her as the poster child for the Parade of Homes. “If only we could find another Norma,” they say.

Keith’s eyes sparkle as he spins a pretty tale of the initial idea to give a deserving, ambitious student the funds they need to continue their education with the encouragement and backing of skilled tradesmen. They hope that the student does well and returns home to North Georgia to apply what they’ve learned, possibly working for someone seated at this table. The dream is that the graduate will stay and give back, building and beautifying the land that nourished them, making their own home among the people they know. The sparkle in Sumner’s eye dims as he admits the difficulty in finding students like this, even with the help of teachers in three counties handing out applications.

At the May banquet this year, the foundation awarded $50,000 in scholarships to Lexi McGill and Gabe Lera from Fannin County High School, Raul Gonzalez and Issac Bradshaw from Gilmer County High School, and Jeremy Stover from Union County High School. They have high expectations for these five students and are planning on increasing the scholarships to $80,000 next year.

I think about how hard it is today to find reliable, skilled tradesmen no matter where you live. I try not to dwell on how little I’ve grown to expect of them, ending most calls silently pleading, Just show up. They get it, these eight men: Don, Buzz, Tommy, Kevin, Travis, Ron, Marc and Keith. They’re the first to say how difficult this life is, having grown up in the construction field and ridden out any number of troubled times. They know the sting of disappointment as well as the jewel of hard work and sweat equity. But, if asked, they would all agree that nothing compares to the feeling of building someone’s dream, of handing them the key.

And isn’t that what they’re trying to do through the Scholarship Foundation?

Like Diane Stillman who maintained the ballfield in her backyard and never stopped believing the players would come, the eight men of the long table will continue supporting and building up local youth in construction knowing that someday they will come, and they will stay.

All proceeds from ticket sales help support The Blue Ridge Mountains Parade of Homes Scholarship Fund.