THE STRATTONS aren't on a reality-television show about extreme makeovers. They're not swapping lives or wives with another couple who has it tough. There's no British nanny flying in with a film crew to help them care for a boy with cerebral palsy.
Reality for David and Joanne Stratton and their 7-year-old son, Dominic, is a 617-square-foot home, a former chicken coop that was built in 1940 in what is now the affluent suburb of Mount Laurel. Their days and nights play out in the small space that serves as the couple's bedroom, Dominic's therapy room and, when there's a rare visitor, the living room it was intended to be.
There's foul water that gurgles up from their well and worn carpet that Dominic lies on to play with toys or watch his beloved female Philadelphia news anchors because there's no room there for a walker or a wheelchair.
The Strattons, a fiercely proud and humble family, never had any room for charity either and weren't comfortable being the guests of honor at recent community fundraisers held for them.
"Me and Joanne never asked for anything," said David, 42, seated on a coffee table pushed against a television in the cramped living room. "We're kind of quiet people. "We've always just depended on each other."
If the Strattons were quiet and reclusive, they met a counterpart in Pam Machulsky, a township woman with a big heart who matched the couple's pride with her persistence.
Machulsky said she was one of many motorists that got stuck in traffic jams outside the Strattons' Hartford Road home every morning when Joanne helps Dominic board his school bus. She cringed at the motorists who beeped and yelled and tried to pass the bus illegally, but she mostly marveled at Joanne Stratton's grit and the boy's beaming smile.
"I would just look at her and say 'Wow, what a life she must have,' " Machulsky said. "I wanted to do something."
Machulsky's charity started with some anonymous Christmas gifts left outside the home, but last spring she grew bolder and left a note on the Strattons' door.
"I think it said, 'Call me now. I want to do something extreme for you,' " said Joanne. "I thought 'Who is this woman?' "
Extremes aren't in the Strattons' nature, but they warmed to Machulsky and her friend Lori Leonard, and together they crafted a wish list of sorts, one that included more space for Dominic and his medical equipment, a sewer and water connection to their home, and lastly, their own bed.
"Most of all, we just want more room for Dominic. This is all about him,' said David, a warehouse manager.
The Strattons had lived in an apartment nearby when Dominic was born but bought their small home in Mount Laurel about six years ago in hopes that they could renovate it and sell it for a profit.
"We didn't plan on staying here," said Joanne, who works as a school-bus aide.
The daily grind of owning an older home - the broken windows, the leaky roof and a drawn-out battle with the township over the legality of the wheelchair ramp they built for Dominic - helped erode that plan. Dominic, who weighed just 1.5 pounds when he was born, sleeps in a crib inside the home's one bedroom, while Joanne and David share the pullout couch in a living room filled with framed pictures of Dominic's constant smiles and a Christmas tree that blocks a makeshift closet.
"This was a fixer-upper," David added.
Together, Machulsky and Leonard spread Dominic's story throughout their hometown and thanks to an e-mail chain, Facebook and a blog, they've formed the group "Dominic's House" and have raised close to $10,000 so far.
"There's 517 Facebook people and I don't know any of them," David said with a chuckle.
Dominic's House has gotten guarantees by local business owners and contractors who are willing to help with the home, and they've garnered the support of hundreds of local residents, including former Philadelphia Eagle Jon Runyan and current Eagle kicker David Akers.
They've also gotten donations of bottled water, more than 70 cases, most of which are now sitting in a warehouse.
Leonard said the ultimate goal is to raise $200,000 for the family and help them move into a spacious rancher in town with all the amenities Dominic needs, along with a real bed for his mom and dad. Before that happens, however, the Strattons' home needs to be renovated, and tapping into the school district's water and sewer lines could wind up costing anywhere from $16,000 to $20,000 when all the fees and permits are finalized.
The school district can't waive the fees, a spokeswoman said, but is working out a payment plan with the family.
"We would love to have that done by Christmas," Leonard said.
The Strattons look at one another and laugh when strangers call their home quaint or cozy, because no matter how hard they fought for adequate therapy and schooling, they feel the home has been a jail that's arrested their son's development. That's why Dominic is such a busy guy outside of the home, participating in horseback riding, special-needs baseball, karate, as well as regularly tearing up the asphalt at local parks on his modified bicycle.
"We like to expose him to as much as we can," David said.
Dominic gets true joy, his mother said, just by seeing other people when he's out on his walker. The Strattons don't even have a sidewalk, though, and the bustling traffic on Hartford Road, just yards from their front door, is too dangerous for them to let Dominic play outside.
Soon enough, thanks to residents who wanted to help and the family that was willing to accept it, a little boy whose smiles usually end in giggles might have a home that's a safe launching pad and neighbors who will wave at him when he gets on the bus.
"We just want him to be able to grow up and be part of a community," Joanne said. "He loves being around people."
For more information about Dominic Stratton, visit dominicshouse.blogspot.com.