JOPLIN — Five semitrailers rev at the end of Jackson Street. They are filled with furniture from the likes of Crate & Barrel and Ethan Allen, ready for delivery to seven newly built homes.
Hundreds of volunteers in sky-blue shirts and hardhats stand attentively in the front yards and on the porches, listening to instructions about when to run out of the homes and cheer the arrival of the furniture.
A group from Stephens College has been participating in the volunteer effort behind the show. The participants are keeping a blog at http://emhejoplinbuild.blogspot.com.
Shelly Vincent-Masek, who teaches interior design at the college, is in charge of customizing one of the seven homes being built. She has been leading a team responsible for window treatments, bedding, upholstered projects and pillows.
"Sleep is low," volunteer Sarah Frost wrote in one post, "but moral is high, and may I say we all make quite the team."
Jackson Street is in one of the hardest hit areas in the May 22 tornado. Around the corner are the remains of homes and trees stripped bare of leaves, branches and bark. The shell of St. John's Memorial Hospital is blocks away.
The new houses have been built courtesy of ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" for families who were selected through letter nominations.
The goal was to build seven homes in seven days. What emerged was an oasis in a desert of concrete foundations, caved-in walls and stairs going nowhere.
*Seven students traveled to Joplin on Tuesday to participate in the show. Five of the seven, Emelie Henzel, Lauren Vienravee, Courtney Padgitt, Morgan Grawe and Stephanie Rasch worked to unpack furniture and hang up spray painted canvases for a skate park in one of the backyards. The other two, Amy Santimauro and Camila Remolina, were part of a recycling team for the show. This was one of the first times the show did any sort of recycling, Remolina said.
The students left Columbia at about 8:30 a.m. to get to Joplin in time for their six-hour shift. They were part of the second of two MU teams that volunteered for the show; the other group worked overnight Saturday on the same houses.
The Tuesday team members are all architecture students and members of Student Environmental Design Association.
"To be able to use what we're studying and be in an environment we can give back is great," said Vienravee, whose emphasis is interior design.
The black and white trucks now roll down Jackson Street. Volunteers storm out of the homes and gather behind each truck.
Crew members throw open the back doors and begin handing down lamps, pillows and other furnishings. Cheers rise from the crowd. The army of helpers are from Missouri and nearby states.
"Keep screaming it!" shouts a crew member as the camera operators go in for closeups. Much of the work during this time is staged. The volunteers are cued when to begin working, when to cheer. While the filming is going on, the real labor is more or less on hold.
Padgitt said she will never forget the experience. She found herself deeply touched by photographs in front of the houses of the families who will live in them.
"While it's great that they've provided these seven families with beautiful, well-furnished houses, it's sad to know that all of the other community members are still standing on their foundations wondering when they will be able to have a home," Padgitt said.
"I realize there is just no way to provide everyone with a house since the damage and destruction was so devastating. I just wish there was."
Diagonally across from the new homes is a boarded-up house with a big, orange "X" across the front door. "Owner" is spray-painted in black to the door's left with a phone number below. A blue tarp flapping in the steady wind serves as a makeshift roof and, on this day, signals an approaching storm.
The house is a common sight in the neighborhood around Jackson Street.
Brenda Bragghas lived through hurricanes Iwa and Iniki, which hit Hawaii in 1982 and 1992, respectively. She returned Tuesday to volunteer in Joplin. Right after the May tornado, Bragg came to town to help her cousin, whose nearby home was severely damaged.
"When I crossed over the hill and saw the hospital, it took my breath away," Bragg said. "It takes so long to recover from something like this, and it's easy for people who aren't around it everyday to forget."
Bragg, her cousin and other family members spent days sifting through memorabilia and debris, numbingly consumed by deciding what to keep and what to throw out. She is struck by how much people still need.
"You don't think that six months later you're going to still see soup kitchens," she said.
At this point, it's hard to tell how much work the volunteers are really doing. Most of the outside construction work is done. One of the homes, a cabin-themed house, will be revealed on "Good Morning, America" the next morning.
The new homeowners will be able to see the abandoned hospital every day. Nothing obstructs the view.
"These people have literally lost everything," Padgitt said. "I instantly thought of the emotions I would be going through if that was my house and family — I couldn't even relate. Truly heartbreaking."
"Joplin just needs help and as much they can get," she said. "Hopefully, more volunteers keep coming and helping these families in need."