When the tour buses and camera crews of the television show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” rolled up in Joplin last month, an estimated 10,000 volunteers from across the country poured in to help. They worked day and night to build seven houses for seven displaced families in just one week, making the Joplin episode one of the biggest builds the show has ever done.
Many of the details are kept secret until the episode airs on a date that hasn’t yet been announced, most likely in January. But these Columbia volunteers share snatches of what they did and saw on the set. Although they never met the families whose homes they readied, the experience left a lasting impression upon them.
Give Me Shelter
Jamy Preul knows people who spend months building their homes. So when she arrived on the set of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” on Day Six of filming, she was surprised that volunteers had built seven homes in the past 120 hours.
Even in that limited time, she says, “They decorated every room and did something special for each family.”
Preul’s eight-hour volunteer shift began when she signed in at the registration tent. The former education director was a little disappointed to learn her first job would be checking volunteers’ identification before sending them off to pick up a hard hat and a T-shirt. When she saw the many states listed on their driver’s licenses, Preul realized how far-reaching this volunteer effort was and her disappointment faded.
“There were people there from Arkansas, Texas, Minnesota, Illinois, Kansas, New Jersey, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Connecticut,” she says.
At lunch, Preul was asked to help serve in the buffet line.
“[“Extreme Makeover” host] Ty Pennington wasn’t there, but all the designers were — Mike and Paulie and Paige and some of the others,” she says. In 2½ hours, 150 people came through the line.
As Preul helped around the houses that evening, she heard stories about some of the families who would move into the homes.
One couple realized in the middle of the tornado that they wanted to get married. The woman had put a helmet on her son to protect him, and it shattered when a flying toilet hit him in the head. Incredibly, he was fine.
One firefighter wasn’t home when the tornado struck. On his way home, he helped dig people out of the rubble, all the while wondering if his own wife and children had survived. At the same time, they were alive at home and wondering the same of him.
Two single mothers were not as lucky. They both lost children in the tornado.
The families’ homes had themes. One looked like a lodge, with a canoe hanging over the dining room table. One looked like a beach house. One looked like a fairytale home, Preul says, with white siding and a picket fence and roses. One was painted in cheerful, Latin American-inspired colors.
All had storm shelters.
An eerie feeling came over Cindy Mutrux as she planted flowers in Joplin.
She was kneeling in the soil next to the home Preul called the fairytale house. Its shutters were a pale pink.
“We were digging in the ground, and I was a little afraid of what we might find because I knew there had been so many lives lost there,” she says. Joplin still looked like a war zone filled with strange sights such as a garden hose hanging from a tree there, she says.
Mutrux, who owns Mutrux Automotive Sinclair with her husband, describes the atmosphere as respectful but joyful. Some people prayed over the houses, and others sang as they struggled against the rocky Joplin soil.
During their shift, Mutrux and other volunteers learned about the single mother who would move into the “dollhouse,” as Mutrux describes it.
Crystal Whitely was huddled in the bathtub with her three children when the tornado ripped two of the kids out of her arms. “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” producers asked her only surviving child, 4-year-old Keana, what kind of house she wanted to live in. She said a dollhouse, so that’s what they built her, Mutrux says.
Mutrux and other volunteers planted what the show’s designers called the Healing Garden between Whitely’s house and the house next-door, which belongs to Whitely’s friend Crystal Cogdill. Cogdill also lost a child in the tornado.
The Healing Garden has a gazebo and a waterfall surrounded by flowers and bushes. On Whitely’s side of the garden, there are two trees representing the two children she lost. On Cogdill’s side, there is one tree.
“If something like that happened to me, I would pray to God someone would come to my aid and help me,” Mutrux says.
A Fresh Start
When Kit Price launders a person’s clothes, she gets a sense of who they are without even meeting them.
The Robinsons Cleaners co-owner can tell if it’s important to them to have designer clothes or if their priorities lie elsewhere. She knows what their go-to brands are. And when she does a pack-out — the type of job that requires her to launder all the clothes in a household — she can tell if someone has as many belongings as the average person.
Price and her team packed out all the clothes, shoes, purses and stuffed animals the seven families on the show owned. Although they weren’t contaminated by water or fire, as her pack-outs usually are, Price cleaned them so they’d be fresh and wrinkle-free when she brought them back into the families’ new homes. It took eight people 33 hours to wash and dry clean everything. She estimates it was about $40,000 worth of labor, but they did it for free.
As with her other customers, Price could tell some things about the families from the clothes she cleaned. They weren’t wealthy, and they had lost a lot. Her team filled only 10 to 12 bags per household as opposed to the usual 30 or 40. Most of the clothes were new, indicating they might have been recently donated. They weren’t fancy. Price spotted some Walmart brands.
“There weren’t a lot of stuffed animals,” Price says. “They might have had just three or four. Stuffed animals, blankies … they lost that kind of stuff.”
Michael Goldschmidt’s team worked a shift from midnight to 8 a.m., and he actually hoped it would work out that way. The University of Missouri assistant professor of architectural studies took a team of about 15 students to Joplin to volunteer, and he urged them to put their nocturnal habits to good use.
“Our students are used to staying up late to do assignments,” he says. “I said that’s where we can contribute the most. It’s important to do, even if they’re not on TV.”
Some of Goldschmidt’s students helped with the build by painting, participating in clean-up, doing yard work or making minor repairs. Goldschmidt had more willing volunteers than the show needed, so the ones who weren’t tapped for the episode teamed up with the city instead to recycle some of the materials discarded on-site.
The kind of learning that took place would be difficult to replicate in the classroom. “The students got to see how the houses were designed according to each person’s actual needs,” Goldschmidt says. “Sometimes houses are built for the real estate value, but these were really built to be in tune with the families.”
Stories To Tell
For a group of Stephens College interior design students, the show was a chance to see what is possible in their field.
Freshman Amber Miller and juniors Emily Ricketts and Melissa Fredericks were three of the student volunteers who spent several days in Joplin. Once they proved they were capable of doing professional-level work, the crew gave them more and more responsibility. Most of their time was spent drawing, painting, sewing, designing and brainstorming. It was rarely spent sleeping. They can’t say what they did, but they can say it was worth the sleep deprivation.
“Working for the show is a dream come true,” Ricketts says. “Getting that close to exactly what I want to do gave me confidence.”
Shelly Vincent-Masek, the adjunct interior design instructor who recruited the team of student and professional volunteers, says, “As an educator, I couldn’t have orchestrated a more perfect learning opportunity than the one that presented itself in Joplin.”
The students say they had never before pushed themselves so hard in their design work and they’re proud of the results. Although they never met the seven families, the best friend of a woman who was to live in one of the houses said she was sure her friend would love what they’d done.
Still, it was painful to see how many Joplin residents are struggling to rebuild their lives.
“You see one guy standing on his roof over there, nailing things together,” Miller says. “I think you’d wonder, why couldn’t that have been you? So many people have stories to tell.”