Local charity builds swimming pools for families in need
photography by Paul Caliwagan
It wasn’t that long ago that Jessica and Ed Coyner could’ve used a little help themselves. The couple, both of whom had worked in the swimming pool industry, decided to start their own company in January 2008.
“Awesome timing, right?” says Jessica Coyner. Their company, Signature Pools, operates out of Chesapeake, Va. “I don’t know how else to say it: We lost everything. A lot of people did. With a sixth-month-old at the time, no clients and going into business on your own, that was a bit rough.”
But the two worked hard and stuck with it. “I guess because we had lost everything, when we got on our feet we wanted to give back,” Coyner says. “We wanted to share our blessings with our community and to do something unique.”
Coyner wanted to start a charity building swimming pools for families in need. To get it off the ground, she lobbied for Latham International to hold its builders school in her area. The annual Latham school builds a swimming pool for a family or organization in need, and uses the build as an instructional tool for its dealers.
“I knew the only way to launch this project would be to have one under my belt,” Coyner says. After the Latham school, Coyner’s Backyard Haven charity took off. Its third pool was completed this fall, and the application process has started for the fourth.
High school sweethearts Ryan and Nicole Evans always dreamed of having a family. “I used to draw her pictures in high school with a yard full of kids,” Evans says. “It worked out perfect. It didn’t work out as planned or like any parent thinks it might, but we wouldn’t have it any other way knowing [our children] now.”
The Evans’ son Halen was diagnosed with autism in April 2012. Just a few weeks later, they found out that Aubree, who was 15 months at the time, had a tumor that eventually left her paralyzed from her midstomach down.
Both children receive respite care through the Navy, where Evans is a Master at Arms. One day, one of their caregivers brought the family an article talking about Backyard Haven.
“We wrote a letter together and waited,” Evans says. “We kind of forgot about it. It was in the back of our minds, but there were so many other issues going on.”
Backyard Haven generally chooses two to three finalists from the submitted applications, then the Coyners interview each family and choose a winner.
“We never thought in a million years we would be selected,” Evans says. But in July 2014, they were.
Backyard Haven now has a board of directors and holds two fundraisers a year: its Backyard Bash and a golf tournament, which this year will be held for the first time. So far, all pools they have built have benefitted a child, but Coyner is hoping they can build a pool for an injured veteran in 2015.
She says they look at each family’s situation closely and follow a strict set of criteria.
“They can’t have the ability to afford an above-ground pool,” Coyner says. “It has to be somebody who has lived in their house for awhile and doesn’t intend on moving for awhile. The need has to be there, as well as the ability to afford the extra utilities and chemical cost to maintain a pool. That would be so sad to build somebody the perfect therapy pool and then they can’t use it.”
She says they also are looking for humble and grateful people. “You want to make sure you pick the family that it benefits most; who would never be able to afford it in their lifetime; and who is going to take care of it and make the most of it because they know it never would’ve happened any other way.”
So far, each pool they’ve built has come with its challenges. One year a child had metal in their body so the water temperature was very important. Backyard Haven found a company that donated solar panels to heat the pool, only to discover the home’s roof was in bad shape. Soon, a company donated a new roof. On that same job, a fence that wasn’t up to code had to be replaced. The list could go on.
“There are lots of small businesses that get involved,” Coyner says. “And the city of Chesapeake has been awesome. Our sheriff has gotten involved in the project, our mayor, our city council, permitting department…. They help us in any way that they can.”
The Evans family project also had its challenges, but one of them was positive. While waiting to hear about their applicationfor Backyard Haven, the Evanses came into contact with another charity called the Roc Solid Foundation. In need of ramps so Aubree could get around the house easier, one of her care workers reached out to the foundation and its founder, Eric Newman, came by to see what he could do. The girl and her family touched him so much that he decided he needed to do more than just install ramps.
When the Evanses found out they also were in the running for the Backyard Haven pool, they were worried people would think they were running a scam. Evans says he made sure everyone knew what was going on immediately.
“Nicole and I felt so bad,” Evans says. “We just felt like there were so many good things happening to us in such a short amount of time.”
In addition to the ramps, Roc Solid remodeled portions of the Evanses’ home and built a playground in the backyard. Backyard Haven and Roc Solid coordinated the backyard plans.
“We picked our family in July, and [Roc Solid] had six months planning on us already,” Coyner says. “We paired up with them and did it all at the same time so the elevation and grade would be right, and we wouldn’t interfere with each other’s projects.”
Because of the joint nature of the project, Backyard Haven had to move up its build and do things before some of its usual donations could come in.
“Hayward normally donates all the equipment, but since the project went so fast this year they were unable to,” Coyner says.
Nevertheless, this project was an overwhelming success. “In fact, they wrote me a letter to thank us, which nobody has done before,” Coyner says. “It was very touching.”
Roc Solid sent the Evanses to a resort for a few days in order to complete the house and prepare for the big reveal. Evans says it was like being on the television show Extreme Home Makeover.
“Every emotion you can think of was coursing through our veins,” Evans says. “Nicole was just completely overwhelmed. I feel bad that I didn’t cry, but I was so excited. Things like this just don’t happen. The burden that together they have taken off Nicole and my shoulders is extraordinary.”
The final product was revealed September 20 so the family was able to use the pool a few times before it got too cold.
“It’s beneficial for Aubree especially, but it’s beneficial for autism as well,” Evans says. Aquatic therapy was something they wanted to do for Aubree, but it wasn’t covered by insurance. “She army crawls and drags her lower extremities around the house, so her movements are pretty labor intensive. In the water, we put a little kick board underneath her, and she can paddle her arms and move wherever she wants. She goes up and down stairs with her shoulders; she’s incredibly strong and resilient and adaptive.”
Backyard Haven thought beyond the swimming pool and kept the families’ needs in mind when landscaping as well.
“They put a ridiculous amount of concrete down in the backyard so Aubree could wheel around,” Evans says. “She went through the sprinkler on the concrete at the end of summer. The look on her face! It was just her first time. It was very heartwarming to see her be a little kid.”
The story doesn’t end there. Coyner says her relationship with the families extends far beyond leaving them with a pool. She continues to support each of them with service and repairs when they need it.
Coyner says the meetings, fundraising and extra work is worth it. “When it’s something you love, you just make it happen,” she says.
The work she and the board put into Backyard Haven is 100 percent volunteer. Coyner says 95 to 99 percent of the money raised goes back to the family.
“I would love to see other builders do this and take on the challenge,” Coyner says. “There’s nothing like having your own pool in the backyard and the magic you can create with that family time.”
Evans still sounds a bit in shock when he’s talking about what Backyard Haven and Roc Solid did for his family. “They got together and changed our lives forever,” Evans says. “Nothing that we could’ve experienced could have lifted us up the way they have. We look forward to being part of both organizations the rest of our lives.”