JOPLIN, Mo. —
Not much is known about “Gary F.”
He came to Joplin from an unknown state and helped build walls at the latest Habitat for Humanity home.
In red Sharpie marker, he penned a blessing on a two-by-four that was used to frame a kitchen window.
“May God bless all those who share in building this home! Bless your home, keep you safe! God bless Joplin. Thrivent Builds Worldwide. Joplin ’12,” he wrote.
In the months that followed, more than 90 other volunteers from across the nation followed his lead, scribbling messages of hope and consolation at the home at 2630 S. Wall Ave.
Most are covered up now, beneath drywall and paint, but below the surface there remains that ever-present connection to the house and its owners.
“I think about it a lot,” said Ed Kunce, who with his wife, Angela, got the keys to the Habitat home during a ribbon-cutting ceremony last week.
“Behind the paint are those signatures, and that’s special. They’re from across the nation, people we didn’t even know who came here to help us. To me, the walls can talk a little.”
THE JUSTICE LEAGUE
The genesis for that Habitat home grew out of a tornado debris clean-up effort by a group of area residents linked by their roles in the judicial system and law enforcement. After the cleanup, they wanted to do more.
Billing themselves as “The Justice League,” they inquired about sponsoring a Habitat home. They learned they not only would need volunteers and work days, but they would first need $50,000.
Webb City resident April Foulks, who used to work at the Joplin Police Department, and her husband, Derek Walrod, a captain at the Jasper County Sheriff’s Department, helped spearhead the effort, but she admits to being intimidated by the challenge.
“I was very skeptical,” said Foulks, who now works in the Jasper County juvenile office.
She remembers thinking: “That sounds like a lot. There is no way we can raise that.”
Jasper County Circuit Judge Gayle Crane lent some support to the effort.
“We’ll raise it,” she told Foulks.
What followed was a traditional fund raiser — a golf tournament, dinner, dance and silent auction, which began months before they broke ground.
“And a lot of asking family and friends,” Foulks said. “It took everyone knowing someone.”
After they had their $50,000, there was something else they needed before they could get to work.
Ed and Angela Kunce were in their apartment on May 22, 2011. Although the walls crashed down around them, they both survived.
Ed, a sales representative at Osborne Paper Co., and Angela, who works at Mercy Hospital Joplin’s Oncology Clinic, shuffled between a string of places in the months that followed. They relied on friends and family, and eventually a FEMA mobile home.
“In 26 years of marriage, we moved one time. And then we moved four times in eight months,” Ed said.
Last April, Ed — a lifelong Baltimore Orioles fan — learned that baseball Hall of Famer and Orioles great Cal Ripken Jr. would be in Joplin helping with a different Habitat for Humanity build. Ripken was just one of many celebrities who used their stature to raise money and recruit volunteers for local recovery efforts.
Kunce called his son Travis, who likewise loves the Orioles, and they drove to the site to say hello and meet one of their heroes.
While there, they learned more about Habitat, which set the next step into motion. The Kunces would apply for their own Habitat home.
The Justice League by now had its money, and its family.
Now the question was where.
Life at 2630 S. Wall Ave. had been good to Tomie Avant, a Carl Junction attorney. Her cozy bungalow was built of Carthage stone in 1938, and in the decade she called it home, she worked on remodeling it to make it “her own.”
She pulled up carpet to reveal original hardwood floors. She painted the kitchen and the front bedroom, and sewed cushions for the swing on the front porch.
“I loved it here,” Avant said. “Absolutely loved it. I have vivid memories of how it used to be.”
That home was destroyed in the tornado, along with an estimated 7,000 other homes, apartments and buildings.
Avant said rebuilding at that site was just too painful for her.
“I just couldn’t take on all of that, dealing with builders, codes, everything.”
So instead, she donated the lot to Habitat.
Joplin Habitat Director Scott Clayton said the organization relies on the donations of building lots to help make their building efforts more affordable.
Last fall, the lot was cleared of little bits of remaining debris, leveled and prepared for building by professionals who dug the foundation and poured the forms.
The wall-raising, held Oct. 8, brought out a large contingent of Justice League volunteers who wore work boots and hard hats.
Also hauled to the site that day were rough-framed walls that had been assembled earlier by a group of volunteers with Thrivent Builds, a Lutheran volunteer organization. Those sections of the walls, like so many others, were assembled weeks earlier in a warehouse that a number of groups shared, including Habitat for Humanity and Joplin’s Immanuel Lutheran Church.
It was on one of those walls that Avant noticed the blessing left by Gary F.
The day was an emotional one for her, and she took a red Sharpie of her own and left another message. She chose a place opposite his on the frame for the kitchen window.
“God bless you and your wonderful family. I pray that you have as many happy memories in your home as I did in mine. My love and prayers go to you and your family,” she wrote.
Ed and Angela Kunce were there that day, too, as was Travis. Ed carried a photo of Ripken in his pocket; Travis wore his Orioles jersey.
The family is required to put in 300 hours of sweat equity for Habitat in exchange for the zero interest, 20-year mortgage for the home.
When the window frame was in place, Ed and Angela began imagining looking out of it one day while preparing and eating meals.
“I can picture where everything will go,” Angela said.
IT TAKES ALL KINDS
Columbus Day — the courthouse was closed — was the next Justice League work day. Thirty-one volunteers showed up.
“I couldn’t sleep last night I was so excited,” said Foulks as she worked. “Here we are. I can’t believe it.”
Linda Childers was among them. Retired after having worked at the Jasper County Juvenile Detention Center for 26 years, she was joined by her husband, George, a retired shop teacher from Miami, Okla. Once Joplin residents, they now live in Afton, Okla.
They had volunteered with the clean-up crews in the months following the tornado and wanted to return to help do something constructive.
“It was important to do,” said Linda, “and we also felt camaraderie with my former co-workers.”
Bonnie Leiby, president elect of the Jasper County Bar Association, was on her knees in front of the last section of wall — the front one — struggling to pound the last nail into place.
“When I was young, a third grader, I helped replace a roof on my parent’s house,” she said. “That’s about it as far as my construction experience.”
The nail wouldn’t cooperate — she thought she’d hit a knot in the lumber — so after unsuccessfully attempting to pull it back out, she gave up.
“I’m going to turn this last nail over to someone more experienced,” she said.
That someone was Phil Metz, a local attorney who went to Parkwood High School with the future homeowners.
His wife, Sue, who is his legal assistant, also volunteered on the work day. She wore a hard hat and nail apron, but was unsure of her efforts.
“I’m not sure how much I’m really helping with the building, but I am being a cheerleader,” she said with a smile. “With something like this, it takes all kinds, doesn’t it?”
The window frame signed by Gary F. and Tomie Avant soon was covered, their two messages hidden, but not before other volunteers saw them and were inspired to add their own. Some were written in pen, some in pencil, some quickly scrawled and others more carefully thought out. They wrote them on two-by-fours, plywood — any surface on which ink or lead could work.
“SDL” from West Chester, Pa., wrote, “Bless this house and the people in it.”
An anonymous writer quoted Isaiah 40:31: “Those who put their hope in the Lord ... will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles, they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not grow faint. May you be blessed.”
Then there are the simple initials: “K.C.”
They were left by Kansas City Jazz Musician Ken Rosberg.
He was there on a cloudy day in November as sheets of plywood went up.
While they worked, Rosberg suggested a unique strategy to keep hammers going.
“You think we ought to sing along?” he asked as they rapped out a rhythm on what was becoming the front wall of the home.
The T-shirt, jeans and tool belt he wore suggested an ordinary volunteer, but a nearby film crew, armed with a cinema-grade camera and boom microphone, hinted at something more. It was confirmed when Rosberg retrieved a CD from his car — one he had recorded.
For 20 years, Rosberg has been the president and supervising broker for Cedar Creek Realty in Kansas City; a trade association was following him to document the ways real estate agents were helping.
“When I learned of the many homes that had been destroyed in Joplin, it really affected me, and I wanted to do something,” Rosberg said. “It’s a project I felt really strongly about supporting.”
He turned to his passion: music. He had created a bucket list when he turned 50 a few years ago; one of the things on it was recording his own music.
“You turn 50 and what kind of mark are you going to leave, what will people say about you? I wanted to do things for other people,” he said.
Rosberg, a vocalist who has performed at jazz clubs in the Power & Light District, went into a Kansas City recording studio with other musicians to create the album, “Just Follow Your Heart.” It includes three songs by Rosberg and nine cover tunes. He called the effort, “Jazz for Joplin.”
“A majority of proceeds will go to building houses,” Rosberg said. “It just felt right.”
Rosberg brought with him to Joplin the first check from the CD’s sales, which totaled $1,000, then stayed to put up some walls.
Small Acts of Kindness
Over the weeks and months, the frame began to look less like a skeleton and more like a home.
Volunteer Norm Clearfield paused from hammering one day to tally on his fingers the number of countries in which he’s helped build homes.
“There was China, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Haiti, Mongolia, and then the next major one will be Vietnam,” said Clearfield, a Chicago resident and computer systems specialist by trade. He has helped rebuild homes after earthquakes, mudslides and other natural disasters.
For the past 10 years, he has been affiliated with Thrivent Builds, first as a volunteer and, more recently, as a paid member of the staff. In that time, he put enough miles on his work boots to warrant retiring them a few weeks ago.
“It was an emotional moment; they’ve been on all my trips — 100,000 miles,” he said.
After a Habitat for Humanity build in Alaska in 2006, Clearfield was hooked.
“I ended up in Americus, Ga., coordinating trips like this one,” he said.
“You can do your tiny little bit to make the world a better place,” he said. “When you make that connection, you’re saying, ‘We care about you enough to come from all over the U.S. to help’.”
His trip to Joplin left him in awe, he said. He got much more out of the experience than he believes he gave.
“It’s such a testimony to the spirit of people. You keep hearing that word, and for me that’s a key word. If we don’t feel like we’re all in life together, then what’s the point? You will never know what that one small act of kindness is worth.”
'IT LOOKS LIKE A HOUSE'
One day, Ed Kunce stopped by to check on the installation of the home’s appliances — something that’s left to professionals who hold specialized certifications.
“It looks like a house now,” he said.
The bathtubs and sinks that were brought in that day arrived the way many plumbing supplies do — in a truck from Joplin Supply Co.
In 1899, the company opened to provide the supplies miners, builders and others needed. It’s still providing Joplin what it needs to build and grow — sinks, tubs, stools and plumbing items, as well as electrical, HVAC and refrigeration products.
About 10 years ago, it added to that list providing supplies for Habitat homes at a discounted cost or, in some instances, no cost.
“We’ve always done something for Habitat — if not on every house, close to every house,” said the company’s general manager, Ron Hall, who joined the company 45 years ago. “We believed it was important.”
So it was natural for Hall to say “yes” when asked last year by the Jasper County Bar Association to help sponsor the home at 2630 S. Wall Ave.
A crew from the Joplin office of Bolivar Insulation Co. came by and blew in green fiber cellulose insulation, which is created from recycled newspapers.
Along the way, the crews read the comments left by many of the volunteers, including one left by Judy Dinger, who never indicated her hometown. “God is in the details. ... Be Blessed.”
“Our ultimate goal is to make a very energy efficient home comfortable to homeowners so it is inexpensive to live in,” said John Clayton, who heads up the company.
As a plumber and heating and air conditioning specialist, Lamar native Eric Jeffries has been key to the completion of dozens of such homes since the tornado, and his work on them has a lasting impact on each homeowner’s budget.
Jeffries has owned his own business for 23 years, having first worked six years for someone else. For eight years, he’s worked on Habitat homes, which he finds rewarding, he said.
“We do a lot of work for custom homes, and they’re all very appreciative of what you do, too, but it’s just a different feeling that you get from a Habitat homeowner,” Jeffries said.
On the last official work day the Justice League had at the home, a day on which nail holes were filled and trim was painted, attorney Katrina Richards reflected on their achievement.
“We’d have little meetings at a table at the courthouse and brainstorm about how to raise money and make it happen,” Richards said. “It was lofty. But now here it is, a real house, with real people who are going to move into it. We pulled together and we did it.”
On Wednesday, she was among a dozen members of The Justice League who gathered in the kitchen within steps of the window frame bearing hidden messages by Gary F. and Tomie Avant.
Members of The Justice League traded in their work boots and hard hats that day for masks and handmade capes bearing the letters “JL” to achieve a superhero look before the ribbon-cutting ceremony that would make everything official.
Outside, Sandy King, a member of Town & Country Quilters, stood on the sidewalk holding a quilt of white, forest green and a deep burgundy.
“A member of the guild made it, and I’m donating it to the homeowners today,” said King, who also lost her home in the 2011 tornado.
A few minutes later, volunteer Christine Beydler kicked off the ribbon-cutting ceremony with a surprise housewarming gift — a framed and signed portrait of another Orioles great, Brooks Robinson.
“To Ed, Good luck with your new home.”
The Hall of Famer’s message will be on display in the home along with a scrapbook featuring photos of each of the signatures and comments left behind by the volunteers.
“We’re ready to move forward with life,” Ed added.