Joplin tornado victim helps people heal

Friday, May 18, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:12 p.m. CDT, Saturday, May 19, 2012

JOPLIN — For the past year, Ann Leach has been making lemonade out of lemons. Last May, she was looking forward to expanding her grief and loss counseling business, Life Preservers, and attending a fall conference in Hawaii.

She had been renting a duplex in Duquesne for 14 years and was comfortable there. Then came May 22, 2011, when the EF-5 tornado that began in Joplin stormed across Duquesne.

Leach sought shelter in a bathroom and was spared injury as her home fell down around her. A few weeks later, Kansas City artist Matthew Dehaemers captured a portrait of Leach standing in all that remained: piles of rubble.

She put her business on hold and began counseling herself.

This May, Leach opened a new business in a new home as part of a partnership that showcases other Joplin businesses.

As a life coaching counselor for 15 years, she had shifted gears in the past few years to focus on grief and loss. Leach, 58, is no stranger to the emotion. Her dad died when she was 8 years old, both grandfathers and a grandmother were gone by the time she was 16 and her mother lost a battle with cancer when Leach was 31.

As Leach began the process of sorting through her own grief from the loss of her home and much of her belongings, she realized that rebuilding her life and counseling others in their grief naturally coincided. She found what she called the "right and perfect place" in which to do both at 523 S. Sergeant Ave. — a 105-year-old craftsman bungalow with an inviting front porch near the edge of the historic Murphysburg neighborhood.

Leach converted the upstairs to two large bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen where guests can schedule a retreat to work on their own healing; she transformed the downstairs into her own living space.

She painted the walls a sunny yellow and named the place Creative Cottage, with the tagline, "Joplin is rebuilding and so can you: Come to this historic home with a strong foundation and work on rebuilding yours."

During their retreat at Creative Cottage, Leach works with individuals or families to create a map of their next steps after a loss — whether it be that of a loved one, a pet, a job, a home or another significant part of their life.

"I help them create a plan for a quiet recovery," said Leach, who uses a five-step process to life coaching.

She outfitted the home in a blend of contemporary and antique decor — eclectic would be an apt description — to make it feel "relaxed, like a beach house."

Her decor includes a motto she worked in cross-stitch at about age 27 and framed for her mother's hospital room that reads, "This is a positive thinking area." The photograph of Leach standing in the rubble hangs to inspire others.

"If I can rebuild, so can they," she said.

She forged a unique partnership with Joplin businesses to help furnish the Creative Cottage, including Jim and Judy Cooke of Slumberland, who lost their business in the tornado but have since rebuilt.

The Cookes furnished the upstairs living room and bedrooms on consignment — if you love the bed, you can have it shipped to your home. Like the chair? It can be yours.

Joplin Floor Designs gave Leach a credit toward the final cost of a redesigned stairway approach to the guest quarters, and Triple H Coating donated the rehabilitation of the clawfoot tub in a bathroom that can only be described as "quirky."

Justin Thomas at The Wild Flower provides guests with fresh flowers in their rooms, and Teddy Steen at Blue Moon Market provides Leach with "swag bags" for guests, including motivational items, at cost. Blue Moon also offers guests the chance to purchase the decor in their rooms.

Mark Neunschwander at 9Art Photography donated photography of each room for Leach's website and printed materials. Powerhouse Gym provides Leach's guests access during their stay. Ozark Nursery plans to donate plants for the garden.

Macadoodle's sponsors monthly networking events for guests and business associates. Artists Heather Grills and Koral Martin contributed paintings and photography on consignment. The Life is Good company donated ball caps with their slogan to help remind the guests that it will get better.

"This is bigger than me," Leach said of the venture.

Her significant other, Karl Lipscomb, a noted artist, who had his share of tragedy last year when a fire badly damaged his home and studio, contributed works to display throughout the Creative Cottage, and he plans to build a pergola in the backyard.

Leach said she believes the neighborhood-feel of the place, with tree-lined streets and neighbors who visit on front porches and sidewalks, is aiding in her personal recovery.

"It was a mixed blessing. I'm in a good place now," she said. "I totally expanded everything: My business, my life, I have a real neighborhood now on both sides of the street."

And she believes that Joplin is the perfect place to come for anyone who needs to work on healing.

"This is a message to the world, that Joplin is doing just fine," she said. "Who better to help you with your own loss than a community that has had such loss itself? I believe the city will be a visual reminder to those who come here that they can do the same thing."

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