Joplin, six months later.
Unlike TV, pain both real and extreme in Joplin, Mo.
Five months ago, my husband Brian and I traveled to Joplin, Mo., to help clean up after the disastrous tornado that had hit the weekend before. What we ended up having was a life-changing experience. I documented that weekend and decided to share it with others. I had so many kind words that when Brian and I decided to travel back, I wanted to share our experience again.
In late August I received an email from the television show, Extreme Home Makeover, saying they were offering over 10,000 people the chance to return to Joplin for a special rebuilding project. We discussed it and decided it would be a great opportunity to return and come “full circle.” A few weeks later we left for a vacation to Delaware. During this trip, Brian was involved in an accident that left him almost totally immobile for a few weeks. Brian is still struggling with the use of his hands, numbness, weakness, and fatigue. I had put the Joplin trip out of my mind when two weeks ago I received an email saying we were confirmed for a six-hour shift on Friday, Oct. 21. I mentioned it to Brian and said there was no way I was going to drag him down there and miss more work. He was hesitant but said the decision was mine. It weighed on me heavily. Our community has helped our family in so many ways since Brian’s accident and here I was being given a chance to pay it forward. Brian admitted he wanted to participate the best he could. This would be a once in a lifetime chance to help rebuild a community. I talked to my boss who also said it would be crazy to miss out on such a rare opportunity and encouraged me to go.
As the day got closer, I started to get very nervous. The last time we were in Joplin, the smells and sights haunted me for weeks. I had many sleepless nights when we returned home, and I didn’t want to witness that kind of destruction ever again. Reservations aside, we packed up our boots and gloves to make the five-hour drive to Joplin. Our check-in time was 1 p.m., and we didn’t know what kind of chaos awaited us, so we left early. This time the drive was familiar and less hectic. We found our parking lot north of the destroyed St. John’s Hospital. We loaded up a small bag, threw on sweatshirts and started our walk through glass, rocks, and nails. We made it to the destroyed Cunningham Park where we saw over 200 volunteers cleaning and rebuilding. A woman stopped us to let us know that we couldn’t bring any bags, cameras, or phones into the area. We walked back to the car to find I had left my driver’s side door wide open. I realized maybe I was a bit more nervous and excited than I had thought. We returned to the area and found our check in tent. We were issued television release forms indicating they could use any footage of us for the show, and if we were injured we couldn’t sue.
We signed all necessary paperwork and were told to put on the Extreme Home Makeover shirt over our clothes and a construction hat and wait out front. While waiting, we were encouraged to write a special message on some of the wood being used in the houses. A few minutes later a golf cart pulled up, and we were told we could start our shift early. At 12:30 p.m., we were dropped in the middle of the construction site.
The plan is to build seven homes, for seven families, in seven days. This was organized chaos involving thousands of people. I was ready to start putting up walls, paint and get my hands dirty. Before I knew it, about 100 of us were ushered into a tent to shoot a segment. I’m scared of public speaking yet was ushered to a table and given instruction on how to behave on camera and how to act when show host Ty Pennington got there. After a 10-minute wait, I asked the producers of the show what we could do to help them out. Brian, myself and another woman from Springfield MO, were given instructions to place white tape on boxes to cover any product names or information. We finished; proud we had gotten to finally do something. Soon after we were told to find trash bags, water bottles or anything to place in the boxes. We went through trash bins and dug under tables to find what were told to get. We placed them in the boxes. Then came the yarn. Bags and bags of yarn. Color coordinate the yarn, cover the brand name and place them very neatly in the boxes on top of the trash. Simple enough, well, maybe not.
“No, stack them better.”
“Turn that label.”
“Blue over there.”
“Make it look nicer!”
An hour later I was hot, Brian was starting to hurt from standing in one place not moving, and I was ready to get out of this crowded tent! When I was about to head out, they pulled me aside and asked me to cut an orange piece of string three feet long. My job was to smile and hand it to Ty when they cued me. I offered the task to the girl next to me, and she sweetly told me I could handle it. She was in a segment earlier in the day that had taken four hours, and it would be fun for me.
We were given instructions on how to smile, act interested, and get pumped up.
“Do not talk to Ty, and do not ask for an autograph” one of the producers yelled.Ty Pennington, host of ABC's Extreme Makeover Home Edition, in Joplin, M. Photo by Nikki McKim.
Take one, Ty gives an inspirational speech and introduces the “surprise” hidden under a tarp.
“Cut!” yelled one of the producers.
“That was great; now let's do it again in a wider shot.”
Take two; Ty gives an inspirational speech and adds to his previous statement.
“Cut!” yelled producer number two.
“Great, Perfect! Now let’s do it again even better!”
Take three; Ty gives a speech, messes up.
Take four, Ty gives a speech and is about to reveal the gift and “Cut!”
A producer runs over to me and explains my task again.
“Walk up, hand Ty the orange yarn, make sure it isn’t tangled, always be smiling, act very interested in what is being said.”
I sheepishly said okay. My hands were shaking. I hadn’t eaten since 6 a.m. It was now 2:30 p.m. I was nervous. I don’t want to mess up, and have these people stay for another dozen takes; I don’t want to be on TV. I want to go hammer things.
The older lady next to me very rudely said, “I want to do it, I love Ty. Give me that yarn!” When she proceeded to try the yarn from me, I decided I wanted to do it. “Oh no, that is okay I can handle it,” I said smiling.
Now, Ty reveals the surprise, walks over, I give him the yarn, he has trouble with the yarn, “Cut!”
Take 15? “Ty needs scissors. Hand them to him, smile and walk out of frame.” I give him scissors.
Take 22? “Now Ty needs his hammer, walk over to him, hand it to him looking very interested, and back up out of frame.”
I hand him his hammer.
“Nope, we need to redo it, and maybe one more time for good measure” a producer yelled followed by “then let’s do a wide shot.”
“Now let’s do a shot with a Joplin resident crying!”
By this point I was pleased, we were witnessing something so awesome. Even better, Brian had not been asked to lift anything but, I was getting claustrophobic and wanting out. The woman next to me said I was lucky that Ty touched my hand. I started to worry that not all volunteers were here to work, which was confirmed later on. We were given our next task. This time, it was going to be filmed with a time-lapse camera. Thank goodness! This would go faster. I was starting my task when a cameraman walked up and asked to tape me.
Fine. I will get this in one take and build a house I said out loud to myself.
I finished in one take and waited for Brian to finish his. A producer asked where we came from and we proudly mentioned we were from Nebraska while a woman cut in front of us and mentioned she came all the way from the Bahamas to help out. Everyone was impressed but Brian, who had talked to her earlier and found out she, was in school in Missouri but was born in the Bahamas. She was escorted to the VIP section to meet the designers.
Three and a half hours after we arrived we were finally given clearance to get a housing assignment. We were directed to house number five to do some cleanup. I was filled with adrenaline and ready to go. House number five was the future home of a single mother who lost two of her three children in the tornado. We worked in the garage clearing sheet rock and bags of concrete. Each garage will feature a crawl space for protection during future tornadoes. Brian explained his situation and was given the task to clear the small stuff and rest when needed. Time flew as we carried sheet rock and siding to a trash bin in the alley. It was day three of the seven-day project, and the houses were already up. No hammering, no group wall raising, just clean up for phase two which was painting and flooring set to begin later that night. I was still happy to help in any way I could. At 6:30 p.m. we were told a new group was coming in and we were free to go. We could stay if we wanted but, due to the high volume of volunteers, there would not be much more work for us. We walked back to the hospital and found our car. Brian mapped our route to the house we helped clean up five months ago while I munched on some caramel popcorn.
Five minutes later we pulled into the horseshoe driveway amazed at what was there. The house I leaned up against to take breaks was gone. The wall Brian rested on had disappeared. The tree I hung my bag on to work was gone, the trash, everything was gone. We could see clear over to shell of Joplin High School, and back over to the newly built Home Depot. All that was left around us was foundations of all the homes that had once been there. In my hopeful mind, I had prayed the family we helped would already have their home in the process of being rebuilt. Instead, the rose bush I had scratched myself on a dozen times five months ago was the only living thing for blocks. We took some photos and walked around for a bit before we headed to the parking lot of Ignite Church. This was the site of the Extreme Home Makeover spectator parking lot.
A bus would load us, and others to go to a designated area to watch the build. We got on the bus and sat in front of a family from Joplin. I had heard the two small girls talking about how they wanted to see Ty. I offered them my phone to see some photos Brian had taken. Their father thanked us for helping, saying he prayed for volunteers like us every night. He described May 22nd to us from his point of view. Their family was safely at home that night two miles away from the hospital where their daughters were born. After the tornado had hit, he drove down to “ground zero” because friends of his were in a theater that night in the worst hit area. He managed to save his friends, but sadly some of the people in the theater had passed away. He wanted us to know that behind the scenes Joplin is struggling. In the last week, Joplin experienced more than nine suicides. The divorce rate is at an all-time high, and both of these numbers are expected to peak next November. He said there are so many residents who cannot take what happened. Some give up, and some will drive clear around town, some 30 minutes around “ground zero” as to not see the destruction.
“The town is struggling, and emotions are still very high,” he said.
He asked what our tie to Joplin was, and we explained we hadn’t had one when we came down but now we are bound to this community forever. They hugged us and thanked us as we pulled up to the construction site.We got off the bus and walked up a dirt path to see the houses from a bit further away. They were beautiful and all seven unique in style. As we were taking photos, a woman walked up to us and said she was on the bus and heard our story. She grabbed my shoulder and explained that the exact spot we were standing was where her house stood. Her name was Hope. She was the sweetest lady, who told us about her experience on May 22nd. Hope, her sister Marilyn, and her niece rode out the storm in the bathtub. As she wept, Brian and I choked back our tears. She was so thankful for the volunteers and asked our names so she could pray for us. I thanked her for being so kind, she asked for some photos with us, and we said our goodbyes. Brian and I walked away choked up from hearing her story and seeing the terror on her face as she relived it.
About 7:30 p.m. we decided we were starving and tired. We took the shuttle back to our car and went to our hotel. We were still in our Extreme Home Makeover shirts and were asked by the clerk how the build was going. I found it surprising how many Joplin residents wanted to share their stories with us. He told us how he was working that night and the TV kept going out, yet he didn’t know what was going on blocks away. As we walked to our room, we both could not believe that he didn’t know the tornado was cutting a line through this town just blocks from the hotel door. We ventured out for some pizza and drove down South Rangeline Road. A block into our drive the street went dark. It was like driving from city to country. We drove through the pitch-black area and came out near the new Home Depot where the lights and city life reappeared. It was so eerie to see. We noticed a haunted house set up down the street, and I remember thinking how that didn’t seem normal yet. But, Joplin was moving on, getting back to normal. It didn’t seem normal to us, but for them, this was the new normal.
The next morning on our way out of town we passed the bank where we were shuttled to five months ago. We had passed this bank a dozen times in the last 24 hours not realizing this was the spot we had been dropped off. Next to it was a new strip mall. They had rebuilt so much there in five months that we didn’t recognize it. The biggest sign of progress yet.
Joplin is rebuilding the best they can. The people were inspiring and welcoming to us. I cannot wait to visit again to see the progress of a town that now holds such a special place in our hearts. We along with tens of thousands of other volunteers feel bonded to this city and its residents and hope for nothing but strength and progress for many years to come.
As a footnote, I was disgusted to see a camera man ask a woman to cry again for a better shot. It made me sick how many "volunteers" took photos, got their shot in front of the camera and left. Of the 100 people I was bused in with, maybe 50 tried to work. This was a harsh reality for me. I have lost all respect for the show, Ty Pennington who was rude and all "reality" TV. Let's hope nobody else had this reality check while trying to be genuine and help.