Hard luck puts Pa. veteran's family in a bind
STROUDSBURG, Pa. — When energetic father of four Luis Fontanez spotted two rocks in the way of the new home he was building for his family last year, he was not worried.
But as he dug deeper, his concern grew with the size of the boulders.
"I was just hitting the top of the iceberg," he said.
Months of pounding and moving rocks from the site, mostly by himself or with the help of a neighbor, delayed the project and cut deeply into the family's financial reserves, even as they split up to live among family members and then together in an RV on the property.
But the iceberg of obstacles grew larger still when Fontanez, an Army veteran who served in Iraq in 2003, suddenly encountered serious health problems.
Fontanez, who battled bladder cancer in 2006, was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor. Now, he also faces possible kidney failure, as doctors say he may have to start dialysis in the next few years and eventually wait for a transplant.
Meanwhile, with the unexpected boulders, Fontanez said the family has already spent a large portion of what they budgeted for the full home in Pocono Township.
A niece has started an online fundraiser for the family's project that has raised $880 so far with a goal of $25,000.
Fontanez recently led the way through his construction site behind the family's RV and current home, climbing briskly over a quarry's worth of rocks and rock shards surrounding it.
Though he has not built a home before, he oversaw construction in the military both at home and abroad.
He slowed at intervals to point with quiet pride at a drainage system he has installed, the rocks he removed and the straight line of concrete blocks.
"The hard part was the block-laying. It's a lonely job," he said.
His wife, daughter and one son followed him, often laughing as they interjected details of their story, or sobering to remember receiving the news about his diagnosis.
The family moved into their old home on the property around 2000 and discovered problems within a few years. Fontanez found the house was rotted; it had no foundation under the main section and was sagging.
He made the fixes he could over the years, but consulting with zoning officials, decided after his retirement from the military in 2013 that he had time to start from scratch.
In the spring of 2013, he tore down the original house first solely because R-1 zoning laws allow only one housing unit on a property. The new house is going up behind where the original stood.
The family, with children now aged 21, 17 and 11, was displaced and distributed to aunts' and grandparents' homes last summer, while Fontanez remained on site in a pop-up trailer.
Wife Wendy Fontanez said the period was difficult, and they were grateful when a relative gave them the RV.
"It keeps us together, right?" she said.
Over the winter, the family braved the cold in the RV and occasionally crossed the road to the neighbors to take showers when the pipes froze.
Luis Fontanez had hoped to finish the house before last winter, but now is unsure if he will be able to.
He said he has not slowed for his health problems — he once returned to work on the same day as a biopsy. Recurring pain from an old injury, when he broke his pelvis in three places after a toolbox fell on him at work, bothers him more, he said.
The string of bad breaks have hit hard. But despite the challenges, the family was full of life and hope.
"I guess it's better laughing than crying," Wendy Fontanez said.
Luis Fontanez said the mindset comes from his military days, when he knew he had to remain positive for the people under his leadership.
"It's a can-do attitude," he said. "That's it."