AYER — You’ll have to wait, like the rest of America, until Tuesday, Sept. 27, for the full “reveal” (reality television lingo for the moment of surprise). But on Aug. 5, Ayer was captivated by the arrival of the Nate Berkus Show on Pingry Hill.
It’s there that Ayer resident Monica Jorge, dubbed the “Warrior Mom” by television mogul Oprah Winfrey, decided to move her family, all expenses paid, into a new home financed entirely by the billionaire talk-show queen. It’s been almost a year in coming. Oprah announced the gifting last fall, but then her show retired after 25 years in May. Protege talk-show host and interior decorator Nate Berkus has carried the torch forward.
Berkus and GMC also gifted Jorge a fully loaded 2011 Yukon SUV, outfitted with adaptive controls to permit Jorge to drive. It, too, now has a home, snug in a custom garage attached to the sparking new home.
Last Friday, the Jorge family realized their dream and spent their first night in their new home, but not after hosting a couple hundred people and a television production crew on their front lawn. It’s just another day in the life of Monica Jorge, who has lived in the limelight since tragedy befell her in August 2007 in the moments after giving birth to her second daughter, Sophia.
Attacked by a rare flesh-eating bacteria while in the hospital, immediate surgeries were required to save Monica’s life. Jorge lost her uterus, ovaries, gall bladder, and part of her colon that same day. Subsequent surgeries were required to remove both her arms and legs to stop the bacteria spread. In the face of adversity, the family flourished, both with Sophia’s arrival and Monica’s hospital-chapel marriage to Tony Jorge, father of Sophia and older daughter Madeline.
On Friday, Oprah followed through on the promise. And hundreds of townsfolk assembled to witness the joyous event and preshow practice.
Final rehearsals included practicing, with the aid of an 18-wheeled tractor-trailer, how Berkus, designer extraordinaire, would arrive on set. Michael Labossiere of Gardner, who has worked for Ayer Moving and Storage for 13 years, had the honors. He drove the North American moving rig that was wrapped in a massive Berkus Show banner that drove Berkus onto the set for the show opener. Labossiere was cool and collected as the TV star stood on the cab’s stairs and hung casually on the grab handle.
Up the street watching for his cue from the driver’s seat of a black SUV with tinted windows was Rick Roper, who discretely chauffeured Berkus to the truck beforehand. As most locals know, Roper played a much larger role in the production.
Roper is the developer of the Pingry Hill neighborhood. Monica’s is the 54th house in his phased-in development. Roper was approached by the television producers who expressed interest in Pingry Hill.
“My sister Janice, who’s worked for me for 35 years as my sales rep, read about the story or saw it on TV and she said ‘Ayer? That’s a perfect fit for us!’ So she wrote an email and it sort of progressed from that,” said Roper.
“The story of course is very moving. I have a lot of children myself, nine, but when I found out she had little children and being a hands-on father myself I thought ‘oh my gosh, how’s she ever going to do this?'” said Roper. “So it’s a very very worthy cause. And she is a wonderful woman. I’ve met Monica and so has all my crew.”
Roper said it was hush hush. “I had to sign a disclaimer in that it was secret and all that, but I was allowed to tell the pertinent people on my team because there were certain things that had to be done in the house that would raise suspicion and I told some of the town officials, and everybody was over the top, supportive and understanding. Even all the extra hours that all my men put in — the electricians the plumbers, the painters, everybody — put all kinds of extra time and effort in, on their own dime. It’s quite nice to see everybody rise to that occasion.”
“This speaks well for the town and is good for the town,” said Roper. “This is a worthy community, and of course I’m very proud because I create neighborhoods. It’s my job.”
The crew practiced with local stand-ins for the Jorge family. On cue, the massive 110-foot by 25-foot tarp, hanging from a crane and obscuring the front of the house, dropped to the ground. The bystanders went nuts. They’d seen the house before minus the tarp, but how often does one see a house being given away, even if it was just a practice run?
The buses pulled up, the doors opened, and the crowds filled the street. Eleven members of the Tiny’s Restaurant staff were on hand. “Actually they filmed there yesterday,” said Tiny’s co-owner Bill Mauro, as brother Andy Mauro stood nearby. “Just the camera crew. Monica came in with the kids and ate.”
Monica’s a regular, said Mauro. He clammed up when asked about her favorite dish, preserving at least that factoid as private. “It’s just a nice to see good things happen to good people.” Mauro said he’d like to host a viewing party at the restaurant when the show finally airs next month.
Also present was Dr. Marc de Moya, the surgeon who operated on Monica at Massachusetts General Hospital. The “Warrior Mom” name fits, he said.
“She definitely stands out among patients. She basically came in in such bad shape,” recalled de Moya. “It was a miracle and she came back from the dead basically and she was able to survive.”
Monica called Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital home thereafter from October 2007 till January 2008. Nurse Mae Oberton from the Muscularskeletal Unit came for the unveiling, as well as a occupational therapist Mindy Titus, who happens to hail from Ayer.
“She was extremely dedicated to her rehab and never complained and was always willing to go above and beyond to get home to her family,” said Titus. “A stellar patient.”
Then, the moment arrived and mayhem broke out for the Jorge family. They drove up to the set and made their way to the stage.
“I can barely stand this,” said Berkus, as he stood in front of the obscured house, the tarp having been put back into place. “How have you been sleeping? How are you feeling right now?”
“We’re running on empty,” said Jorge. “No sleep. We’re full adrenaline junkies right now. With the lack of sleep, that’s what’s keeping us going.”
“We’re all running on fumes,” said Berkus. “I’m sure you’re so excited to see your new home… But before I show you the new house, I wanted to play a message for you guys from somebody who’s very special and who wanted to be here with us today and definitely is in spirit. She’s the person who started it all.”
And on a wide-screen monitor, Winfrey delivered a videotaped welcome to Monica and the Jorge family.
“Hello Monica and Tony and everybody in lovely Ayer, Massachusetts! Hi!,” said Winfrey, prompting whoops from the audience. “I wanted to be able to add my voice to the chorus of support for this extraordinary family. Today we are all celebrating a remarkable family, an extraordinary woman, a true Warrior Mom, Monica Jorge.”
“Monica, your strength and your courage, our very spirit, are why you will always be one of my favorite guests of all time,” said Winfrey. “I learned, and so many other people learned, how to be more of ourselves by watching you. I’ll never forget you being in that hospital and saying ‘get on with it because I’ve got to get to my babies.’
“That’s a precious thing, having a home. And I knew that Nate would be the one to help make that dream a reality,” said Oprah. “So Monica, Tony; it has been a yearlong journey, and the time had finally come to move into your very own home. It’s ALL yours! No more paying rent. No mortgage. It’s furnished and outfitted especially for you.”
And then, the moment we’d all been waiting for. The tarp dropped. Tears flowed. The family hugged Nate. The crowd hollered. The Jorges made their way off the stage and up the driveway of their new home to tour the inside and all of its splendor.
And that’s where this story stops — to be continued on Sept. 27 on the Nate Berkus Show, which is shown every weekday on WCVB-TV at 10 a.m.
Or for the locals who want to share in the sense of community — on a wide-screen TV at Tiny’s Restaurant.