Tara Johnston recounted the day the tornado destroyed her home at 2021 S. Jackson Ave. and nearly tore her life apart.
She spoke of how she fell to her knees with grief and worry as she feared that her daughter and grandson had perished on May 22, 2011.
“Our lives were in limbo after the tornado,” she said. “How do you start over? Where do you begin?”
Her family survived the tornado, but she faced the daunting challenge of rebuilding the family home. After the family’s insurance company paid the mortgage debt on the house, Johnston was left with an empty lot and no resources to start rebuilding.
Those resources came via help from Rebuild Joplin, a $50,000 donation from Boyd Metals and support from the Toyota Production System Support Center. On Tuesday, Johnston stood on the front porch of her nearly finished home to thank those who helped build it.
With tears in her eyes, she said: “This house means more than just a place to live. It’s a new beginning.”
The two-time cancer survivor and single mother invited those attending the ceremony to a storage shed at the rear of her house where all of the volunteers who helped work on the house had signed their names.
“If you worked on this house, you are a part of our family now,” she said. “We want you to sign the shed.”
Among the first to sign was Steve St. Angelo, vice president of Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing North America. St. Angelo, moments before, had presented a $100,000 check to Rebuild Joplin to keep the organization’s homebuilding momentum going. It is the single largest corporate donation Rebuild Joplin has received.
St. Angelo described how Toyota employees over the past few months have provided guidance to Rebuild Joplin to increase quality and productivity while reducing the amount of time needed to rebuild a house.
“We’ve seen over and over again where our manufacturing techniques can help any kind of organization — whether it’s a manufacturer or a nonprofit group,” St. Angelo said.
With Toyota in the driver’s seat, Rebuild Joplin has reduced the time it takes to reconstruct a home from an average of 62 days to 41 days — a 34 percent improvement.
“Rebuild Joplin loves Toyota,” said Jerrod Hogan, co-founder of Rebuild Joplin. “Sylvester Dupree (with Toyota) spends three days a month with us working on continuous improvement at all levels. This is the gift that keeps on giving. This is huge.
“Being 34 percent faster has a direct impact on the lives of people. They are no longer bearing the human toll of inefficiency. They are no longer staying in a FEMA trailer.
“We are waiting for the headline that says ‘Everybody’s home.’ We’ll see that headline sooner as a direct result of our partnership with Toyota.”
By coming to Joplin to identify problems and correct them, St. Angelo said, Toyota is fulfilling a Japanese approach to business that’s called “genchi genbutsu.”
“It means ‘I come and see for myself.’ It’s go to the site for yourself — to see what is going on,” he said. “So we can judge for ourselves and see how many people we can help.”
Jamie Bonini, general manager of the Toyota Production System Support Center, said the company’s approach is to maximize resources to do more with less.
“It’s about problem-solving,” he said. “We fix the problems so they don’t happen again. Everyone becomes a problem-solver.”
Bonini said Dupree helped Rebuild Joplin create a visual management system that tracks the progress and roadblocks that each project encounters. Large boards are used to follow and document the procedure.
“That has been extremely beneficial,” Bonini said. “We have also introduced a culture of teamwork. We feel this can be a model for future disaster recoveries.”
What it means for Johnston, St. Angelo said, is that she could be living in her new house by Thanksgiving instead of by Christmas. The family has been living in temporary Federal Emergency Management Agency housing for the past year.
A committee was formed at Boyd Metals to select the person who would be helped, said Audie Dennis, vice president and general manager of the company’s branch operation in Joplin.
“Tara was the perfect candidate,” he said. “She has worked on this house as much as anybody.”
Dennis, who helped hang trusses for Johnston’s house, said Boyd Metals employees from Joplin, Oklahoma City, and Little Rock and Fort Smith in Arkansas have worked weekends on the house with volunteers from across the country.
“This has been a great team-building exercise,” he said.
In addition, the $50,000 donation from Boyd Metals is being matched by the Heart of Missouri United Way in Columbia. “That means we can sponsor a second house for another family,” Dennis said.
Among those working on the house on Tuesday was Lana Landis, with the First Christian Church of Wadsworth, Ohio. She and two men from Wadsworth were painting one of four bedrooms in the Johnston house.
“We’re here for the week, and we’ve got to meet the owner and her family,” Landis said. “We love it that we’re helping put this family back into a home.”
REBUILD JOPLIN has rebuilt 27 homes and is working on 20 others. Now that Rebuild Joplin has streamlined its home-building approach, the relief organization is in need of volunteers and corporate sponsors.
IN AUGUST, the pool of available volunteers declined as students and others returned to school. For the first time since the tornado, there is a need for volunteers.
TO VOLUNTEER, people may contact Rebuild Joplin at 623-0065.