If you're stumped about holiday gifts, you can take a cue from a home-improvement project that changed Phyllis Leach's life. Leach returned to her...

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If you’re stumped about holiday gifts, you can take a cue from a home-improvement project that changed Phyllis Leach’s life.

Leach returned to her Kansas City, Mo., home one day to find her screened porch was no longer a dumping ground for old magazines and the lawn mower. Now it’s an attractive space where she drinks her coffee, reads her newspaper and plays with her beagle Cooper.

“I cherish it,” says Leach, a lawyer. “I’ve never received a gift like this and probably never will again. It went beyond any gift I’ve ever heard of. It was such a random act of kindness.”

Leach’s friends Dan Needham and Bill Damico were behind her screened-porch surprise. They snuck in to rebuild and redecorate the room last year while Leach was on a weeklong vacation.

“Sharing your time and your talents is better than buying a gift because it makes much more of a lasting impression,” said Needham, a florist with his wife, Mary. Damico is a handyman and woodworker who makes furniture and toys.

Of course, not everyone has the expertise to tackle a home-improvement project for his nearest and dearest.

But there are other methods. For example, Nicole Gaulden received an interior-design consultation as a gift from her mother.

More gift ideas


A screened porch makeover is a home-improvement gift on a grand scale. There are other things you can do on a smaller scale:

Color: Get a paint-store gift certificate for someone who is sick of white walls. And help paint them.

Maintenance: Give handmade coupons that are good for free leaf raking, lawn mowing, hedge trimming and gutter cleaning.

Organization: Help someone get rid of clutter by sorting stuff for a garage sale, to sell on eBay or to be given to charity. Or give a gift certificate for a professional organizer to lead the way.

Tips for doing a surprise room makeover


Let neighbors know. You don’t want to be mistaken for a burglar.

Don’t do anything outrageous. Covering walls in moss is shock entertainment, not something that will make someone happy.

Budget enough time and money. A small-scale redo is better than cutting corners on a big project.

“I was having a hard time about how to use my furniture,” said Gaulden, a high-school teacher. “My house has wide-open rooms.”

So the designer helped her arrange furniture and develop an action plan for new pieces. Gaulden was pleased with the results and bought a similar consultation for a friend to help her choose paint colors.

“It’s a type of gift so many people wouldn’t spend money on for themselves,” she said. “But it’s a gift they would enjoy.”

Leach’s friends knew a pretty screened porch would be a perfect gift for her. She has been friends with Needham for decades. Their families and friends hang out in a tight-knit group.

Needham and Damico didn’t think Leach’s disheveled screened porch signified neglectful housekeeping or bad taste. The interior of her home is typically tidy and charming with its cottage-style decor.

She inherited the previous homeowner’s décor: Green Astroturf swathed the floor, and gray paint covered the walls. The old door and screens were falling apart, and the paint was peeling.

Needham borrowed the popular design-on-the-sly concept from television shows.

But he made sure the screened porch echoed Leach’s cottage style. Leach’s dad, John Leach, moved the lawn mower to the garage and recycled all the newspapers, magazines and catalogs.

Needham ripped out the green turf and screens. Damico rebuilt the door, put beadboard on the ceiling and installed new aluminum screening. They painted the walls white and the concrete floor gray.

The project could have been expensive, but it cost about $100 for materials.

Needham used an existing rattan rug from his basement and palm and ivy plants from his store.

Damico built a coffee table and refreshed one of Leach’s wicker chairs by painting it white. He also rescued a wicker planter and chair from bulk trash and repainted them. A new ceiling fan that Needham installed was the priciest item.

Damico’s and Needham’s wives jokingly grumbled about their husbands doing work on Leach’s porch instead of getting to their own to-do lists.

But Mary Needham, who is in a book club with Leach, thought the new, improved, screened porch was a beautiful gift.

“Phyllis didn’t need more stuff (as a gift),” Mary Needham said. “She needed work done, and she’s so busy, she might never have gotten to it. I think it’s important that single people who don’t have family in town have a surrogate family to help them do the things that need to be done.”